Monday, June 30, 2008
Anyway, I get so...malaise-ridden when I walk the streets here that I have no idea what I'm going to do with myself for the next two days. Let me put it this way: these are the same quiet mysterious streets that Kafka and Dvorak used to walk...only now they're neither quiet nor mysterious. They try to affect it in places, but it's so put on it's painful. But enough about my malaise. I watched the Euro Cup final tonight on the huge tv on the main square. I ended up sitting with the homeless people by accident for most of the first half. Then the smell scared me away. But oh, the black dudes who try to lead you away to strip clubs (you might recall the Cali golden boys incident from about eleven months back)...I got accosted by like five of these guys and I was ready to deck like three of them because they didn't back off. I just wasn't to be flexed with today. But I ain't ungrateful. Prague is still one of the most beautiful places I've ever been, and living on tap water and sandwiches for three days won't kill me.
Stay strong, folks. Many of you will see me soon enough.
Fond regards to all, even Lana.
Sunday, June 29, 2008
"This just show how over-all Americans lack general information about world outside of border of US of A, and if they didn't your son would have researched in advance that there is no direct train link between Sofia and Budapest. You can't just show up to some country (sic), i.e. Sofia, and say "here, I have arrived, I am an American" and have them just for you (sic) build a rail link to another city. Do you (sic) research."
1) Where did I say I thought there would be a direct train connection between Sofia and Budapest? I mentioned that there wasn't one, but that was a simple acknowledgment of fact, nothing else. I did my research, thanks.
2) At what point did I express an opinion that would lead you to think that I'm of the mindset "here, I have arrived, I am an American."?
3) Whence did you infer that I expected everything (ANYTHING, for that matter) to be easy, or that I expected ANYONE to make concessions for me?
In the process of trying to read between the lines, you're hallucinating. You're seeing things that simply aren't there, and that's where the problem lies.
So now that we have a general idea of how this situation arose, let's discuss my nationality, since you have such nuanced ideas about the American national character.
Yes, Americans are not passive people. This is not a bad thing. If it is indeed a national trait, I personally believe it's an admirable one. Just because we don't react quietly or passively when we've been dealt an insult of some kind doesn't make me wrong or you right; at day's end it means that when you step on me or those close to me, I'm going to lash out. I'm not going to do it in a way that's irrational or stupid, but it's not going to be restrained, either. I am open to criticism. Things approaching abuse, however, are other matters. I will happily pick you apart if you've wronged me or those close to me. This is a simple matter of fact. American non-passivity doesn't make me and mine "cowboys," or any less civilized than you are, which, if I were to read between the lines of your comments, I'd say you are MORE than implying that you're more civilized than Americans. This presupposition is arrogant and frankly infuriating. It would be lovely to talk to you with something other than hostility so you could work on an assumption other than the fundamental ignorance of my people, but since you've borne me and mine nothing BUT hostility, I find it very difficult not to respond in kind.
Do be in touch.
Saturday, June 28, 2008
Go ahead. I'm waiting.
Response to most recent story-based entry from ANONYMOUS:
American anti-sentiment can not be found only in Serbia and the Balkans, but unfortunately everywhere on this planet. Dumping on Yugoslavia, for my mere comment on where did he heard that Serbia is mine ridden, shows why anti-Americanism is so prevalent. There was no need to go into whether Yugoslavia was a, as you say "a made up country" (I fail to understand what defines a country as being a 'made up' and as being 'real'. It did have political borders, had it not?) My opinion is of Miloshevic, Tudjam & Co. is so low that it doesn't deserve to be mentioned, yet, I again fail to see what that has to do with my side comment of where the man who wrote this article heard that Serbia is mine ridden. This just show how over-all Americans lack general information about world outside of border of US of A, and if they didn't your son would have researched in advance that there is no direct train link between Sofia and Budapest. You can't just show up to some country, i.e. Sofia, and say "here, I have arrived, I am an American" and have them just for you build a rail link to another city. Do you research.
p.s. I am not from Serbia, too avoid any possible commenting and dumping yet again on Yugoslavia (which again had nothing to do with my initial comment)
Dear Ms. (Mr.?) Anonymous:
Okay, I am a patient man. But when you make me say things I neither said nor implied, my patience wanes. John Dryden said a few hundred years ago "beware the fury of a patient man." To be honest, you don't deserve my fury. That's reserved for people I care about. But I will summarily pick you apart at any and every given opportunity when you read an entry that concerns my mother's death and the best you can do is point out an historical inaccuracy. So let me talk to you. I and my father are the reason anti-Americanism (unfortunately?) is so widespread? Let's talk about history, you and I. Facts. Yugoslavia, honest-to-god, WAS a made-up state. If the involved states weren't ethnically overlapped, then why was there genocide? The World Wars fucked things up for a lot of people, and Tito held it all together under the pretense of atheism, but it all fell apart. In the end of ends, yes, Yugoslavia was a made-up state in the same way so many other states were arbitrarily divided without consideration of ethnic or religious differences. If you're more educated than me or my father, then you have yet to demonstrate it. Yes, I'm trying to piss you off. Go ahead, prove me wrong. I dare you.
Mr. Anonymous, the fact that you directed this conspicuously anonymous blog comment against my father further shows your cowardice. I'll quote you. They're your words.
"My opinion is of Miloshevic, Tudjam & Co. is so low that it doesn't deserve to be mentioned, yet, I again fail to see what that has to do with my side comment of where the man who wrote this article heard that Serbia is mine ridden."
My father does not write this blog. If you have a grudge against him, deal with him personally. However, when you bring him into this, I get aggravated. I won't begin to pick apart your inadequacies in dealing with the English language, because, while said list would be long and satisfying to me, it would also be peripheral.
I knew very well that there was no direct train connection between Sofia and Budapest. I'm not stupid, believe it or not. The simple expectation that my train to Belgrade would be on time was a naive one, that's all. I don't know if you've been reading too much Derrida or something of the sort, but you're reading a lot between the lines that isn't actually in the text.
Furthermore, SIR, you could really refer to my dad as though he actually does have a terminal degree in his field. He's actually been quite a few places out of the U.S.of A. As for me, I've been traveling for a year. I've been through scores of transit and other miscellaneous difficuties, and I don't need to justify myself to a neophyte like you; just learn to be quiet, or at the very least quietly criticize instead of just picking on my dad and making yourself feel good. I mean, that's what EVERYTHING on the internet is about. No, but seriously, where do you get off? You're not Serbian, so you don't take national offense, and if you've read ANYTHING ELSE I've written, you'd know that I love European people and the European lifestyle; however, it's a lot easier for you to brand me and my father as ignorant southern hick Americans. If that's how you want to think about me and my family, fine. Know, however, that I will prove you wrong at every turn. The fact that I don't know who you are says much more about your cowardice than it does about anything else, but ultimately, here it is: I'll go. We'll go. We'll fight. If you want to get into a serious political/international argument, that's fine. I'll win. You don't know the basic principles of English grammar and punctuation, and your argument is faulty at best. I'm giving you time. Regroup your forces. Let's go. I'm ready.
By the way, in case you're afraid of me and would prefer to direct your words toward my father, he's offered his email: email@example.com. Have fun.
Friday, June 27, 2008
Tuesday, June 24, 2008
I'm more than aware that I've been a far less-than-informative tour guide to the wilds of Eastern Europe in recent months, but a lot has come up. Most of the stories are funny. Some are irritating. Some are sad af first but uplifting overall. Instead of devoting myself to what would doubtless be a twelve-hour storytelling grind of recounting the past few months, I'll instead hit the highlight stories and spare you the details of museums and histories and minutiae. If you really want to know those things, then good; it gives me something to talk about without repeating myself when I see you in person. Stories are not presented chronologically.
Tony from Liverpool (L'viv, UKR, sometime in late April)
You meet the most unusual melange of people in hostels. You meet really interesting people, crazy people, narrow-minded people, stag party people, really good-hearted people, thieves, drunks, people running from their pasts, people putting off their futures...in conclusion, abnormal is the norm, and Tony from Liverpool was among the abnormalest of the abnormal. Sparing you the absurdly complicated details of my lovelife in the months of March, April and May, suffice to say at this point I was dating a lovely Polish girl, Ania. I was trying to achieve a gradual break-up, since I found my return to Poland in the next few years rather unlikely. We were traveling together around Ukraine as I tried to build the foundations for a friendly separation. The hostel I frequented in L'viv, Ukraine, (each of my three visits) is The Kosmonaut. Not to plug it or anything, but if you're ever in the area, it has great facilities, staff, owner, and an ideal location. But I digress, albeit briefly. Whenever I first arrive at a hostel, I try to get to know everyone who's staying there. There was the normal assortment of students, travellers, and expatriates. I didn't have to introduce myself to Tony--he introduced himself amply.
I use all capital letters because volume control wasn't his forte.
"HELLO! WHAT'S YOUR NAME? I'M TONY, THAT'S T-O-N-Y., WHERE ARE YOU FROM?"
"err, I'm from Tennessee, thanks, nice to meet you."
"AND WHAT ABOUT THE LOVELY YOUNG LADY?"
"I am from Warsaw, in Poland."
(slightly quieter) "OKAY, THEN I WILL SPEAK S-LLLL-OW-LY. I...AM FROM...EN-GLAND. ENGLAND. DO YOU KNOW WHERE THAT IS?"
"I...I do understand English."
"Oh, okay, I'm sorry" He kisses us both on the cheek. "My wife died two years ago. Can I play a song for you?"
By this point I was taken aback, so I said with hollow voice, "...sure..." It was a mix CD consisting of "Hey Jude," "Yesterday," "Lady in Red," and a few other songs that escape me because they were all of the selfsamesentimental drivel...sorry to all you Beatles and Chris de Burgh fans out there. It was made worse when I was engaged in a conversation about the Soviet role in WWII with an Englishman and Tony comes up, puts a hand on each of our shoulders and, while we're midsentence and "Yesterday" is playing in the background, he says to both of us:
(sotto voice): "do you know why Paul McCartney wrote this song?...He wrote it...because he lost his MOMMY. HE LOST HIS MOMMY. This song...is ABOUT LOVE. TRUE LOVE FOR YOUR MOMMY." He walked away, only to wedge himself in one of the other group conversations in the room.
At another juncture it was quite late and I was contemplating going to get some late-night snacks from the 24-hour store. Ania was talking to her sister back in Warsaw. Tony comes in and I say "oh god...". He asks Ania "who are you talking to?", and Ania responds that she's catching up with her sister. Tony takes the phone out of Ania's hand as he says "I'll talk to her"
"Hello? Hello, my name is TONY. That's T-O-N-Y. I'm from LIVERPOOL, in ENGLAND. Do you know where that is? Do you speak English?"
"Well, that's good, but I'm going to TALK VERY SLOWLY SO I KNOW YOU WILL UNDERSTAND ME. MY WIFE...IS IN THE SKY. YOU HAVE A VERY BEAUTIFUL VOICE. I WOULD LIKE TO TAKE YOU OUT TO DINNER SOMETIME. I THINK I LOVE YOU. MAY I SING YOU A SONG?"
Whether Aga said yes or not is immaterial, because Tony broke into a completely wretched rendition of "Lady in Red." Some time later, he gave the phone back and proceeded to follow me to the all night shop, insisting that the streets were DANGEROUS.
"YOU KNOW, JOSH, ONE TIME, I WAS JUST MINDING ME OWN BUSINESS IN THE BAR. I WAS ON ME JACK JONES (THAT MEANS BY MESELF, IN YOUR AMERICAN). AND THIS BUNCH OF...OF...OF...CHOCOLATEFACES TAKES ME INTO THE STREETS AND DOES THIS TO ME LIP!" (He points to a scar) "THESE STREETS ARE DANGEROUS, MATE, BUT I LOVE YOU, SO I WILL FIGHT FOR YOU WITH THE STRENGTH OF TEN MEN!" (he grabs me and begins raking his stubble into my neck as he embraces me tightly) "JOSH, YOU MUST BELIEVE ME!" *sotto voce* "I'm not gay, and I'm a good man."
I tell him neither of these things had occurred to me. Truthfully, neither of them had. We go to the 24-hour shop, and I get some sausage, bread, cheese...the basics. Tony's milling around and he comes behind me, grabs my shoulder and solicits me for 10 Ukrainian Hrivna (the Ukrainian currency. 10 UAH=$2). I ask him why, and he says "I want...to buy...your girlfriend...a PRESENT." Despite my assurances that this wasn't necessary, he kept insisting otherwise, and finally I asked him what he was going to buy.
"I want to buy her...an ice cream."
At this point I tried to think of something provocative to say, something to make him go away.
"I want to get something straight, Tony: to the best of my knowledge, Ania doesn't like dessert. She likes cigarettes, sex, and alcohol. Not ice cream"
"BUT EVERYONE LIKES ICE-CREAM! EVERYONE! YOU WILL GIVE ME TEN HRIVNA SO I CAN BUY HER AN ICE CREAM AND REMIND HER OF HER CHILDHOOD!"
I see. He got his ten hrivna, and I was waiting on him to leave. I left ahead of him and when I looked back thirty seconds later and saw he wasn't behind me, I went to check on him. I walked in during the last verse of his heart (ear) breaking rendition of "Yesterday," which he was singing to the bewildered and irritated-looking Englishless staff. After I barked a stream of Russian unrepeatables at him, the staff started stifling chuckles and he got distracted enough that he stopped. He was about to leave when he saw a security guard dressed in solid black trying to buy a pack of cigarettes to get him through the night. It was 4:00 am. The guard looked like he had a lot on his mind. Before I can stop him, Tony goes up to the guy, claps him on the shoulder, pulls him close and says "HEY, MAN, LOVE IS ALL YOU NEED. JUST RELAX, IT'S OKAY."
The gentleman in black wasn't amused. He responded in perfect, if thickly-accented, English: "Mister, I work for the state security. If you knew my job, you would know it is not possible for me to relax. Please get your hand off of me."
This story doesn't end with much of a bang; Tony got kicked out of the hostel two mornings later for being drunkenly verbally abusive to the staff. After our foray to the convenience store, however, I couldn't help but think that he had the scar on his lip coming to him.
The Chairrail Incident (Kiev, Ukraine, April 2008)
It was a rainy day near Independence Square in Kiev. I was done there, so I was headed down the metro. My mood was especially good, so I thought I'd attempt a slide down the shiny silver chairrail. It was too wet to allow anything but friction, so I hopped off. The four cops at the bottom of the stairway looked at me in grim amusement and crowded around me.
"That's not legal. There's going to be a fine"
I processed this information and decided it might be in my best interests to plead ignorance. "Shto?"
The leader repeated himself.
I repeated myself. Apparently my...well, I've heard, anyway...Ukrainian accent almost worked against me here.
He said "what are you, stupid?"
I was a little flattered. He thought I should have understood him because of the way looked and said "shto?". I'm better at blending in than I thought, I guess. I answered him "izvinitye, ya nie govoryu po-Russkii."
He looked startled and said "inostranyets?" (foreigner?)
"ah, Amerikanyets......o.k. good-bye." I showed my passport, he saluted me, and leader & posse walked away.
Another bullet dodged.
The Worst Day Ever. (Sofia, BG; Beograd, SB; Budapest, HU)
Transit has bred more conflict and problems than any other circumstances over the year. I suppose it's fitting that I cap the year with a fittingly expensive and involved fiasco. Here goes.
There is no such thing as a direct train from Sofia to Budapest. They all go via Belgrade, Serbia. My train left on time at 21:20. It was due to arrive in Belgrade at 04:45 the next morning. The ride was uneventful; I had a cabin to myself and there wasn't much to do but read and write in my journal, and I eventually drifted off to sleep and woke up around 4:15. At 4:30, there were no visible signs of civilization (factories, churches, houses, Burger King, Walgreen's) in any direction. When there were still none of said signs at 5:30, I started to get worried. I anticipated a two-hour layover in Belgrade before my train to Budapest was to depart at 6:45. When civilization was still conspicuously absent at 6:30, I started to get worried. the train from Sofia arrived two hours and eight minutes late. The train to Budapest departed on time. You can see my dilemma. I went to the information office and found out that the next train to Budapest was...two days later. I prepared to saddle my luggage at the train station storage area when a smiling little man approached me. He looked good-natured enough, and he said "you missed train to Budapest? Vienna?" Generally I give these people the walk-on-by, but this guy seemed to know something. I stopped and said I did indeed. He said "I drive you to another station; if you hurry, we can make it very soon." It sounded good to me, even as I saw the taxi that was presumably his looming in front of me. I assumed, silly me, that since the train hadn't left so long ago, it would be stopping in Belgrade suburbian stations. I couldn't have possibly anticipated a cabride halfway across Serbia. That, however, is what I got. After the meter had reached some very, very high numbers, I asked my driver how much...this would cost. He wouldn't give me a straight answer, but when I told him that I had 5 Bulgarian Leva ($4), 4,000 Hungarian Forints ($24), and $39 US, he looked...discouraged. He asked me if I had an ATM card, and though it occurred to me that it might be in my best interests to say no and try to bargain with my collected assets to get to this other station, I also realized he was completely within his power to throw me out on the side of the road in land-mine-ridden Serbia. Not my idea of a good time. I erred on the side of wisdom and answered yes. The town from which I was to attempt my second departure, Vrbas, was 140 kilometers from Belgrade, and time was running VERY short. The train was due to depart at 8:53 from Vrbas. We entered Vrbas city limits at 8:42. We still had to stop at the ATM. The driver pulled us into the central square of Vrbas, and I ran over to the ATM. It did not take Mastercard. Neither did the second or the third. By this time I was sprinting to the fourth, making the poor old chainsmoking dude keep up with me the whole way. I found one that took Mastercard, I got the money, and off we went; I got a great deal of satisfaction out of how much longer it took my cabby to catch his breath than I did. At least I was making him work for his money. We pulled in to Vrbas train station at 8:51, and the train wasn't there. He asked an employee to which platform the train was coming, and he said "3, but it's half an hour late." I didn't actually understand the conversation, so for all I know he could have said "it's left already." The driver relayed the delay to me and offered to buy me a drink with a fraction of the massive sum I'd just handed him. I accepted heartily. I'd neither eaten or drunk anything from soup to nuts in the past 16 hours, so I was parched. He said ciao and drove off into the distance, and I still had 20 minutes to wait. Then it occurred to me: "what if he lied to me? What if the train already left? What if I'm stuck in this awful little Serbian town, not knowing the language and without another train to Budapest for two days?" I calmed myself with the assurance that the guy did seem honest, even if he'd just taken 100 Euro off of me, and that he'd really have to be some kind of sociopath to leave a random American stranded in Vrbas, Serbia for two days. Fortunately my paranoid side was just paranoid. The train rolled in and on I got. I had luggage difficulties in Budapest that made the whole experience feel a lot worse, but they're not worth explication. Suffice to say it was one of the worst days of the trip.
As I'm sure most, if not all, of my readership knows, the defining moment of the last year came in late May, when my mother passed away. I won't endeavor to explain my feelings on this medium because it would be at once maudlin and inadequate. Suffice to say that, even though the last month has been the most emotionally difficult time of my life, my mother's spirit has given me the courage to carry on and indeed has been the singlehanded force breathing down my throat to pursue this thing to the very end and keep noticing, keep writing, keep experiencing new things and finding new stories to tell. She's even the reason I'm writing this. Many (most) of you have offered me your support, and you have my sincere thanks in this difficult time. The time I've spent on my job searches throughout the southeast has supplanted the time I would spend writing this, but that just means you have to buy the book ;-). If any of you have any ideas of places to look for employment, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. If it helps, I've pasted my resume.
Joshua B. Harris
Permanent Address: 460 22nd St., Batesville, AR, 72501.
Home: (870)-307-0781. Mobile: 870-834-7552. Email: email@example.com.
OBJECTIVE: employment utilizing strong writing, editing, and interpersonal skills
• Dean’s List, 8/8 semesters at Sewanee (requires GPA over 3.625)
• Hard-working, versatile, quick study with experience in many fields
• Proficient in advanced Russian and English, intermediate Polish, and basic Slovak
Sewanee: The University of the South, Sewanee, TN (2003-2007)
• Double major: Russian and English
• Final GPA 3.91 on a 4.0 scale
• Final Class Ranking 10/354
• Comprehensive Examinations (Both Passed with Distinction, October 2006, March 2007)
• Graduated Summa Cum Laude, May 2007
Lyon College, Batesville, AR (2001-2003)
• Fifteen hours of coursework
• Final GPA 4.0 on a 4.0 scale
Contributing Writer, The Sewanee Purple (2006-2007)
• Wrote articles about campus life for one of the nation’s oldest student publications
• Attended meetings and gained knowledge of publication processes
Part-Time Secretary and Departmental Aide, Sewanee English Department (2005-2007)
• Assisted in departmental library research
• Compiled bibliographic information and proofread for faculty
• Gained familiarity with office machines
• Administered tests and supervised writing workshops for first-year English classes
Writing Tutor, Sewanee Writing Lab (2005-2007)
• Edited papers and theses
• Helped students improve writing skills
Thomas J. Watson Fellow (7/2007-7/2008)
• Travelled in fourteen Eastern European countries over one year playing hockey
• Gained intermediate proficiency in Polish in five months
• Learned regional variations in Eastern European attitudes, cultures and traditions
President, Sewanee Russian Club (2004-2005)
• Opened cultural opportunities through field trips
• Served as liaison between Russian students and Russian Department
Carpentry Internship, Heritage Repertory Theatre, University of Virginia (2004, 2005)
• Worked 60+ hours per week, under strict deadlines, for two summers
• Developed leadership skills and proficiency with rough and finish carpentry
DJ, WUTS Sewanee Radio (2003-2004, 2006-2007)
• Hosted music variety show
• Hosted The James Joyce Radio Hour, a self-designed show featuring a weekly live reading of Ulysses and guest student authors
SELECTED HONORS AND ACTIVITIES:
• Member, Order of Gownsmen (Sewanee’s Academic Honor Society)
• Chairman, Student Activities Fee Committee (2005-2007)
• Technical Director, Dionysus Theatre Company (2003-2006)
• Treasurer and Academic Chair, Lambda Chi Alpha Fraternity at Sewanee
• Student Liaison, Library Affairs Committee, (2004-2007)
• Chairman, Order of Gownsmen Grievances Committee (2007)
• Personal research and bibliographic assistant for Dr. Elizabeth Outka
• Vice President of Recruitment and Intramural Athletics, Interfraternity
• Dormitory Representative, Student Assembly (2006-2007)
• Team Captain, Central Arkansas Chaos Ice Hockey Club (2002-2003)
• Member, Omicron Delta Kappa, International Leadership Honor Society (2007-present)
• Member, Phi Beta Kappa, International Academic Honor Society (2007-present)
• Fulbright Teaching Assistantship Recipient, 2007 (declined in favor of Watson Fellowship)
Dr. William Clarkson
Professor, Sewanee English Department
735 University Avenue
Sewanee, Tennessee, 37383
Dr. Elizabeth Skomp
Assistant Professor of Russian, Sewanee Russian Department
735 University Avenue
Sewanee, Tennessee, 37383
Dr. Pamela Royston Macfie
Samuel R. Williamson Distinguished University Professor, Sewanee English Department
735 University Avenue
Sewanee, Tennessee, 37383
Thanks very much and do keep me in the loop; I'll do my best to do the same.
Fondest regards in my final week of la vie hostel,
Saturday, May 10, 2008
Dear Foundation Members, Fellows, Colleagues, and Parties Yet Unknown:
While it would be unfair to say I’ve lost my way in this quarter, it would be likewise unfair to say that the last three months abroad have been teeming with new teams and hockey possibilities. Instead I’ve had a substantial number of cultural excursions and encounters with bizarre circumstances and continuing healthy doses of Slavic hospitality.
Many kilometers of railway and road have passed behind me since my last report. From Tallinn I headed back through Riga and Vilnius, and the stage from Vilnius to Warsaw involved an unconscionably bumpy ten-hour bus ride and a stubborn driver who wouldn’t relenquish the key to the locked onboard bathroom. Suffice to say the ending of that story was not a happy one.
I returned to Gdansk to a warm welcome mixed with good-natured Polish profanity and numerous “where the hell have you beens?”. I decided to do all the Baltics instead of the five-day tour of duty I’d initially planned in Lithuania largely because, even though my Gdansk team wanted me to stay on for the whole season, certain league regulations barred my participation. So though I had a lot of great cultural experiences in the Baltics, my Baltic tour was, on retrospect and chiefly from a hockey perspective, a failed scouting mission.
In my many miscellaneous trips back and forth between Krakow and Gdansk to play for my respective old teams, I realized at some point that it was time for me to leave Poland. To this day I’m not sure if this came to me as epiphany or by gradual enlightenment, but I became aware that Poland had become something of a second home to me. The food was good, the people were generous and hospitable, I had people I considered my friends in five cities, I’d played ample hockey, I’d learned a substantial bit of the language—I’d even managed to find Ania, my Polish girlfriend. In conclusion, I was far, far too comfortable to consider myself any kind of hardcore Watson fellow. Something had to be done about this predicament. After getting some travel arrangements in order, only a few connection voyages between Poland, Belarus, and points south lay between me and resuming the great journey. So I got my visa and accommodation paperwork in order for Belarus and took a sidetrip to Poznan, Poland with Ania.
On this fateful trip I had what was only the first of many forms of hijinx or hooplah (read: adversity) this quarter. While in Poznan, I received a rather alarming email about the pending termination of my debit card due to “suspicious transactions.” I sent panicked emails to all applicable parties, but my pleas were largely ignored, since my card stopped working at ATMs the next day. Ania was also travelling on a budget, and though she subsidized my existence for a couple of days, the money ran out. We realized our collective destitution on the morning we were planning to return to Warszawa, at the train station. When Ania tried to withdraw money from the ATM for our tickets, it wouldn’t even give her a scant 20 zloty and kept making dreadful beeping noises and flashing bright “insufficient funds” screens at us. It was at that moment I realized we were screwed. With a whopping eight zloty of collected wealth, we went to the internet café and I had a tiny last resort idea, since I’d tried every conceivable pin code on my backup bank card (the pin for which I’d smartly forgotten). I tried the Polish train service’s website, and they’d just recently introduced online ticket purchasing. On a whim, I tried my card number, even though I didn’t have the physical object with me. I had melted it, cut it to pieces, and threw the pieces in five different trashcans out of frustration the previous day. Thanks to my mother’s capacity to remember important random numbers, which I mercifully inherited, I recalled my debit card number and hoped against hope I could buy a ticket online. For reasons that defied explanation, it worked. We got back to Warszawa with little incident, and in the process I discovered it’s a weird sort of rush to be stuck in a strange city in a foreign country with absolutely no accessible liquid assets to my name. Rush though it was, it wasn't something I especially want to repeat.
After a lovely few days with Ania's family, I headed to the wilds of Belarus. I don't think I could have possibly anticipated exactly how wild it would be, though. The border crossing was hijink-free, and my first impressions of Belarus were snow-covered and poorly lit. The first thing I noticed were how empty and spotlessly clean the streets of Brest were, even at 22:00 on a Saturday night. I found my hotel with relatively little incident and turned on the television just in time for the compulsory airing of the national anthem that begins and ends the broadcast day. This was only the first manifestation of the rampant nationalist propaganda which comprises about 55% of advertising in Belarus. Lukashenko's iron fist was glaringly apparent from the very first. The view from my room in Brest was so post-Soviet it hurt; a beautiful green orthodox church in the foreground and a looming, graceless hot water production station, smokestack and all, looming in the background. And it was still snowing. Though I had plenty of observations about Belarus in general and Brest in particular, they're lengthy and ill-suited for something of quarterly report length. The most succinct one I can recall with immediacy is the following:
This place is too entrenched in its old lifestyle to move truly forward, and too heavily invested in new things for the old, decayed vestiges to be objects of actual belief. And yet it's all still there: the statue of Lenin, the “glory to heroes” war monument, the red star on the front gate of the army depot, the nationalist billboards, the compulsory sign-off airing of the national anthem...it's like trying to make a complete, sensible, single image with pieces from three different puzzles. It's like Russia, only without as much bloodthirsty venture capitalism and an (un?)healthy dose of pre-Glasnost USSR. It's poverty-stricken, polluted, perplexing, and completely fascinating. (Journal, v.II, p. 65)
Needless to say with only a one-week visa, finding a hockey team wasn't even on the menu. But Belarus was easily the strangest and most compelling of any country on my journey so far, even though I only spent a week there. The perplexing contrast between Belarus' communist past, its dictatorial present, and its continuing efforts to compete in a capitalist market were even beyond my experiences in Moscow. Although I had to pay through the nose to go ($130 for the visa, 30 Euro/night in the cheapest hotel available), it was incredibly rewarding. At this point in the quarter, perhaps moreso than at any point prior, I realized that even though this trip is hockey-oriented, if I spend one hundred and twenty percent of my energies seeking available teams and thereby skip a destination simply because there's no hockey there, I'll miss out on really once-in-a-lifetime cultural experiences. Such was the case with Belarus. When I learned that I could only afford a week in Belarus, I considered not going since I wouldn't be...fulfilling the one-year plan, as it were. But now, especially considering recently depreciating diplomatic relations between the United States and Belarus, I realize I did the right thing. News indicates that Belarus is not an exceptionally safe place for Americans anymore, and the State Department is seriously considering moving Belarus from its “be careful” list to its “you can't go here without permission” list. No more than three weeks after I departed Minsk, news started coming in and I realized that it might be a very long time before things cool off, so I was ostensibly one of the last few American tourists in Belarus before things got bad.
What would seem to be my final return to Krakow (this year, at least) was built around the arrival of two friends from the states, Cris and Whitney. In my year of expatriation, I've gotten remarkably okay with being by myself in odd situations and just making friends as I go along. Cris and Whitney, however, reminded me that there are a substantial number of people back home who still miss and care about me. Though this reminder was helpful to have, it gave me the first tiny twinges of longing for home since my first baby steps in Prague, practically, with the exception of a couple of bad hair days. I was frankly a little worried I'd return to the US and be disillusioned with my surroundings and have some inverse culture shock. It could still happen, but the more I think about my “touchstones” from home, the things I think about from time to time (e.g. Dr. Pepper, Waffle House, and the million other small things that comprise my quaint southern sensibilities), the more I'm looking forward to going back home. But this feeling is likewise accompanied by an increasing sense of urgency here in Eastern Europe; with each passing day I become more aware of how little time I have left and the utter necessity of seeing and soaking in as much as I can in the time given me. I think it really hit home when I rescheduled my plane ticket. Last July I thought this year would be essentially interminable (in a good way). Now, however, I'm in an emotionally exalted state that lies somewhere between frantic desire to play more hockey and complete the rest of my itinerary in two months, nostalgia for everywhere I've been and everyone I've met, and a growing hunger for home.
After my final, final, final game in Krakow, hockey dried up. I returned to L'viv as a stopover on the way to Kiev to spend Ukrainian Easter with Ania's Polish relatives. It was great, although vodka with dinner (a Ukrainian staple) struck me as a little odd. The similarities Ukrainian Easter shares with Polish Christmas really surprised me. The cakey pre-meal good luck bread, the chicken in gelatin, and the soups were nearly identical to their Polish Christmas counterparts. I'd be curious to know if the Easter customs are different further east in Ukraine, since L'viv was once a Polish city. I suppose I'll just have to go back to Ukraine in the future and find out.
Kiev is a beautiful city; it's also the most expensive place I've been on this trip. The cheapest accommodation was twenty Euros per night, and though I'd been having an email dialog with a team, I chose the fiscally conservative route and moved on, since my daily expenditures in Kiev were approximately two and a half to three times my per diem.
Before my arrival in Bucharest this morning, my most recent stop had been Chisinau, Moldova, which I only planned as an intermittent stay. It's the poorest country in Europe, though life in the center of Chisinau is normal enough, with the chickens walking main sidestreets excepted. It gave the city a certain quirky charm. Though hockey was absent, I skated twice in the inflatable temporary dome rink and taught people how to stop, which was interesting since I didn't really know the correct Russian verbs. I gestured a lot and filled in the blanks with what Russian I could provide. I drew a little crowd, even. And now I'm in Bucharest, home of the first reliable internet I've had in weeks—hence the tardiness of the report. I have several emails in hockey limbo presently, so I'll hopefully have upcoming opportunities to play in Romania and then Bulgaria. In the meantime, I've started teaching myself Romanian and seeing the same regiment of museums and concerts to make the most of my time and maximize cultural absorption.
So how to sum up a quarter that has been an objective disappointment on the bases of my initial hockey-oriented goals? I summarize it thus: I knew going into the year that there would be more hockey some places than others. The season is winding down and now, as I head south, I'll have to reprioritize and seek roller hockey with stronger emphasis. Again, rule number one: flexibility is the key to a successful Watson year. Furthermore, though the hockey was lacking this quarter, the conversations and international bonds I've developed have continued to flourish. As mentioned, a maniacal focus on “the game and only the game” would cause me to miss a hoard of valuable cultural opportunities (e.g. Belarus, Ukrainian easter). So the disappointment...isn't, really.
With nine months gone, I am beginning to draw comparisons between who I was when I left and who I am now, analyzing what's changed and what's remained the same. For instance, I've shed a lot of my ideas of “necessary” amenity. The first time I had to stay up all night waiting for a train, to describe me as “irritated” would have been a grotesque understatement. By contrast, due to delays, cancellations, or simply to save money, I've done it seven times this quarter. I suppose from a different perspective, I've realized the patience, tolerance, and strength being alone in strange and inconvenient circumstances requires. Obviously I've acquired some things as well--not the least of which are my broadened Slavic language skills.
From a wider viewpoint, I've also acquired a deepened sense of pride for my origins and a more nuanced understanding of my role not just as a citizen of the world, but as a miniature American ambassador. I've never received as much vituperation for my nationality as I have this year, but under this intense international scrutiny I've acquired a deepened love for my country and the principles on which it was founded. Please don't read the above statement as some brand of rabid nationalism; in my interactions with people from all over the world, I've come to understand America's role in the international sphere in much greater detail. Finally, despite my language acquisitions, hockey/cultural adventures, and growing comprehension of my role not just as a traveler but as a potential future diplomat, these three quarters so far have shaped me into something approaching a completely self-reliant individual who can deal with most given circumstances, no matter how off-the-wall they may be. I suppose that's been an overarching personal goal for my proposal from the very beginning, but I don't think I could have ever thought far enough ahead to write it down as such from the inception of the Blades and Rails project. So through transit hassles, sickness, money problems, and hockey droughts, I'm still reaching, still learning about lands, peoples, and languages. And I know if I keep sending the emails, laying siege on the rinks and barging into the locker rooms, fortune will find me. In the meantime, I can't waste a moment. And on that note, I'll see you on the Mountain in July, because Bucharest beckons.
Best wishes and sincerest thanks to all involved.
Joshua Brandon Harris, V.9.MMVIII
Thursday, March 13, 2008
This blog entry perhaps finds me at my happiest ever, but that's largely thanks to the enormous contrast between my present state of affairs and where I was a few days ago. I feel sorry for the staff here at Baltic Hostel; I must seem some kind of prodigal son to them. I tell them I'll be back in four days, I come back in five weeks. I tell them I'm going to Poznan for the day, and I end up staying three...though this time for reasons entirely beyond my control. We'll get to that dreadful adventure later, though. My attempted daytrip to Hel, Poland should've told me that any excursions I made during the subsequent week would be doomed. I'm sure it WAS a cold day in Hel, but I never got to find out. There are two ways of getting to the resort community on the peninsula: ferry and train. Trains don't run directly from Gdansk, so Ania, I, and her sister, Agnieszka, had to find alternative means. We got on the tram and headed for the new port. We trundled past kilometer upon kilometer of shipyards and factories and saw nothing resembling a passenger port...just the non-touristy face of a gritty port town. Then the tram got stuck in a series of traffic jams. The final jam, it turned out, wasn't a jam at all, but the final stop, the end of the line. We sat in the tram, waiting to go to something resembling a passenger port, and we were elated when we got moving again...it took me maybe three stops to figure out that we had just completed a loop and were headed back to the train station. So the week of transit nightmares began innocuously enough, with a lengthy tour of the Gdansk most foreigners wisely avoid.
From there we did some asking around and hopped on a train to Gdynia, from whence we could connect to Hel. Agnieszka was misinformed that we could buy tickets on the Hel Train (sounds an awful lot like Soul Train, doncha think?), and only after the doors closed and the train got moving did we ask the conductor, who said "absolutely not." I felt my heart in my throat as the ticket controller drew near--I didn't feel like paying a fine, even though I had the cash on me. So before we could recieve our hefty fine, we abandoned ship in a rainy, cold little smudge on the map called Reda. We bought tickets for the next Hel train. THEN we noticed it didn't come for another three hours and would take three more hours to get there. Combined with the return trip, we'd be back in Gdansk at...oh, you know...five am. This seemed unpalatable at best, so we went back the other way, past Gdynia, to Sopot, Poland's premiere seaside destination. I was cold as...Hel, because what I thought was going to be a pleasant little daytrip had become an all-day rainy chilly subarctic seabreeze festival. And there I was, in my hoodie. Only my hoodie. (Yes, pants too, of course, but no t-shirt). Every blast of wind elicited a curse in one of three languages. We ate delicious fish, but I was honestly a lot happier about the heat than the food. After wandering around the town center for a while, we decided to go back Danzigward. Then I saw a sign that changed my life. On the front side of the Sopot train station, there's a kebab restaurant. But it's no ordinary kebab restaurant; it is KEBABISTAN. It's like the missing link in the history of the stans, the missing tribe! An anthropological goldmine, I tell you! (The baklava wasn't bad, either.)
On a completely unrelated note, there's a town in Poland called Pszczółki PshchOOwki), which means "Little Bees" Maybe it's only funny to me.
But, oh, readers, this was only the beginning. We made a decision to go to Poznan the next day to see a Californian expat play a concert. Imagine a washed-up Mick Jagger (I know, seems redundant) who plays guitar pretty well but sometimes doesn't remember the words to his own songs. The concert was fine, but then things started going wrong. I tried every ATM in central Poznan, and each and every single one declined my card. After burning the number off my card, demagnetizing it, cutting it into tiny pieces and throwing it into eight different trashcans (what's funnier than a dead baby in a trashcan?), I began coming to terms with the fact that I was broke. Ania spotted me on meals and fun expenses and the like, and our lodging was taken care of. I tried to leave for Gdansk the next day, but there were no trains. We stayed an extra night, and Agnieszka headed back to Warszawa with her remaining money. Ania thought she had more money than she did, apparently, because every ATM in Poznan said "insufficient funds." So we were stuck in central Poznan with no percievable way to get back to our hostel, much less our respective cities, or even contact anyone (Ania and I both hate celphones with a passion...they're like little leashes). Since the hostel was in the middle of nowhere, we'd taken taxis to the center everyday. That was out of the question at this point. It was ten till eleven, and the last trams to ANYWHERE ran at eleven. I had ten minutes to pore over the public transit map and figure out how to get back. I did, with two minutes to spare. The next morning brought the harsh realization that we both had places to be and no way to get there. I had an ATM card for which I didn't remember the pin, Ania had no money, and we were ostensibly screwed. With a whopping combined wealth of four zloty and fifty-two grosz, we had little recourse. My last-ditch idea I suppose I owe to my mother, since I can't help but think that I got my memory for long important numbers from her. I recalled the number of the card I'd thrown away, and, given our circumstances, I thought it couldn't hurt to try buying the tickets online. So we spent the last of our collected resources on half an hour of internet time. Sixteen digits, a hell of a hurry, and probably a (mixed) miracle later, we had two e-tickets in hand and we were headed to Warszawa. It merits mention, though, that because the internet at this particular cafe was total crap, we had to reset the form several times, and apparently the one time I got the form to go through was the time I forgot to change the date from the eleventh (the default) to the tenth.
Since the Polish Train Service just introduced e-tickets the previous week, the controller looked at the thing like I had a hole in my head. He called his posse of fellow bureaucratic cogs over and they pored over it for a few minutes. They validated it, but he came back a few minutes later and said "come with me." Huhboy. I followed him and he said I had bad tickets, and there would be a 500 zloty fine ($215) if I couldn't buy new tickets like...right now. The tickets were for the wrong day, and while that wouldn't be a problem with a regular ticket, bureaucracy works in mysterious magical ways. I explained I had no money, no card, no phone, no ability to get funds...period. It was a good thing I put my ATM card elsewhere, because he insisted on rifling through my wallet. "So do you believe me now?" He then asked if my friend had any money.
"Does she have a card?"
"Yes, but there's no money on it."
"Does she have a celphone so she can call someone?"
"Does she at least speak Polish better than you do?"
"Then go get her."
So I did, and then through more bureaucratic hocus-pocus and a friendly Pole who let us use his phone, we made a deal. I gave them my passport as collateral and we called Ania's stepmom, who was to meet us at the platform with the appropriate funds. From there, we could go to the information office and get a refund for the improper tickets. So, basically it was just a lot of hassle for no purpose. With no money and two hours' sleep to my credit, this was NOT my idea of a good time. But it all worked out. After a night in Warszawa, Ania's stepmom loaned me 200 zloty, just enough for the taxi ride to Warszawa Centralna, the train home, a night at my Gdansk hostel, dinner, and my trip to practice the next day. The good lord does provide. I will buy much flowers for that woman when I get the chance.
I arrived in Gdansk on Tuesday afternoon, just in time to go talk with my travel agent about my Belorussian visa. Everything was in the works, but it just seemed to be a continual source of annoyance for people that I had neither money nor celphone. She was very displeased when I told her I might not be able to pay her til Thursday. I told her I was sorry, but that was pretty much the way it was. Then it was time for my first practice in a month and change. The trainride to Gdynia was uneventful, and practice was great, considering how out of shape I thought I'd be. I kept up fine and even netted a couple goals in the scrimmage. I caught the night bus back to Gdynia Station in time for the 00:01 train to Gdansk. Since the primary intercity platform is under maintenance, I had to get on a platform that wasn't...really a platform. I waited, and at four minutes to midnight, the station announcer came on the loudspeaker and said something about "...no train...*crackle*...bus...thank you and sorry." The interstices were lost between train noises, crackles, and my far-from-complete understanding of the Polish language. So I wandered down and got a hamburger that was neither ham nor burger nor hamburger and took my seat close to the burger stand. I was still waiting there half an hour after I'd finished my burger. I was holding on to the vain hope that the 01:26 train would run, and the burger stand was the only place that was free of gutter zombies and the stench of sundry human discharges. Then came the police.
"So, what're you doing here exactly?"
"I'm waiting for my train."
"Most people wait for trains on platforms"
"But it's cold up there..."
"mmm-HMM. Well then, which train, son?" (said with extreme disbelief)
"The 01:26 to Gdansk"
The officers walked over to the schedule and looked. Sure enough, it said "Gdansk, 1:26".
"Okay son, as you were. Have a good night."
The train station is crawling with the living dead and the dead drunk, and they decide to pick on the only person without food in his beard. After killing a few more minutes, I went up to the Gdynia equivalent of platform 9 3/4 and waited a little more. The same voice came over the speaker and said more or less the same thing. I sighed and hauled my hockey bag and tired little butt down the stairs and back to the main station hall. I decided to check the bus station. Compared to the train station, the bus station is basically a new level of low at 1:30 am. The smell is indescribable and the people in corners and under things barely look human. I walked toward what I thought were the bus stands and instead ended up at the end of a hallway where a man was peeing and chugging vodka at the same time. The bus station was very. clearly. closed. For those of you who play video games, it was like Doom 3, only I had no BFG or chainsaw. For those of you who don't play video games, this is a pretty adequate synopsis of the above: you're in a poorly lit room and in perpetual fear of being attacked by things that don't seem quite human but probably were at one time. By this point I was trying to prepare myself for sleeping in the fetal position in my hockey bag, but I had a final recourse. I asked the public transit driver "so, where exactly do I get the bus to Gdansk?" He pointed me in the right direction, and, oh thank you Jesus, I made it back in one piece. I'd like to say that I've fulfilled my quota of transit woes for the year, but lying (even to oneself) is immoral and unadvisable.
Now I have money, I have my visa application turned in, and life's utterly and completely grand. I'm going to Belarus in five days, and I'll have my visa (and my final game in Gdynia) tomorrow. I won't be online much, and I'll need all the luck I can get in my first-ever totalitarian country! My first dictatorship! I'm getting all weepy...
Thanks for reading. Please comment, but remember that while constructive criticism is greatly appreciated, abuse will be deleted aggressively.
Back on top, baby.
J. Brandon Harris
Monday, March 3, 2008
As I must've mentioned to you at some point, my Baltic odyssey began as a four-day foray to Lithuania. It ended up being a five-week conquest of all three Baltic countries (and Finland) which ended in a triumphant return to my second home, Krakow. Lithuania is fantastic and fantastically quirky. Vilnius is the only city in the world with a public monument to Frank Zappa (made by a former Party man who made busts of Lenin before the fall), who incidentally never even visited Lithuania. The KGB museum and prison was harrowing (and the best in the Baltics, since I went to all three), and Vilnius is just an extremely fun quirky little place. They have their own tongue-in-cheek breakaway republic, too. It's called Uzupis, and it's dedicated to the preservation of avant-garde artistic spirit. The republic issues its own passports, and even has its own parliament and constitution.
The whole extention process began when I started meeting all of these incredibly cool people. The first was Jay Saxon, a Princeton grad and experienced traveler from Birmingham, Alabama. We missed the same things about the south, and he was the first person on this side of the Atlantic to know what (much less where) Sewanee is. "So, wanna come to Riga with me?" I though about ten seconds and said "sure, why the hell not?" Along with us we dragged Anders, an amicable Norwegian merchant marine, and Jay and I took it as our personal responsibility to educate him on the finer points of American culture, from Waffle House to dirty sanchez (if you don't know what a dirty sanchez is already, you're better off not knowing. This is not a family blog, suffice to say). To be perfectly frank, most of his education took place on the dirty sanchez end of the spectrum. We even gave him a written quiz before we parted ways in Riga. (Unrelated: Take one shot vanilla vodka topped with cinnamon and an orange slice; shoot and then eat the orange slice. It tastes like apple pie.)
Riga was basically shit, though the hostel was partly to blame. Friendly Fun Frank's is stag party heaven, and sleep was basically out of the question unless you were very drunk or had a good set of earplugs. I mercifully had good earplugs. The visitors during our tenure there were almost exclusively Irish and British, and they were AMBITIOUS travelers, let me tell you. I'd come back in shortly after dark (mostly because I didn't feel safe in Riga long after dark), and these kids A) had just woken up and B) were already shitfaced. They were interested in what I'd done, but then one of them said "yeah, what's Riga like during the day? We haven't been out before eight pm..." I winced at this one, for the true traveler has the sense to get up early, see what's there, and then still have time and energy to go out, tie one on, and repeat the process the next day. These kids feel like they were having a Real Cultural Experience if they see something in a foreign country other than the inside of a bar. So anyway, the hostel was basically total crap, and the city wasn't much better. For instance, we thought we'd try some of the local cuisine and hit up this place called Hesburger, the Baltic regional fast food chain. I ordered the Hesburger Deluxe, which was like a Big Mac, only infinitely more disgusting. I unwrapped the thing and my hand was instantly coated in the half-gallon of special sauce they'd put on the horseburger. It got worse when I had to get more up close and personal with my patty to keep it from slipping out of the bun. The sandwich was extraordinarily lubricated. I wonder what was in that sauce, anyway? Perhaps that's one best left to the philosophers. Jay's next question: "so, y'wanna go to Tallinn?" I sent an email to my hostel in Gdansk (where my hockey bag still was), saying "I'll be back when I get back." in Polish. Then I said "yeah, why the hell not?"
Tallinn is fabulous. Its medieval center has been immaculately preserved, and the city's lively and cultured. The local museums were fairly consistent with the content of every other museum in prosperous medieval merchant towns I've yet seen, which seems fitting, since Tallinn's roots, like Gdansk's, are proto-Hanseatic. Perhaps the most amusing remnant of yesteryear's merchant culture is the Noble Order of Blackheads, a guild solely for unmarried merchants of all trades. It was basically like a frat, only even more directly connected to greed and debauchery than its contemporary fraternal counterparts (as a Greek myself, I say this with my tongue far, far in my cheek).
Tallinn also brought the first of several complications to my love life. Before getting into the complications in my love life and the incredibly bizarre assortment of winegums who stumbled around in this little Estonian Haight-Ashbury, a little background on Tallinn Backpackers' Hostel would behoove the reader. The place is essentially a commune; half of the employees are locals who work on volunteer basis in exchange for beer and a bed. The hostel culture this fosters is unprofessional at best, but also extremely amicable and comfortable. At all hours of the day you can find people (employees and otherwise) sprawled on the couches in the dim common room either watching angsty films, passed out, or in some state of inebriation. Though a flop house, it was a lovable flop house.
My first close encounter of the...err...*insert adjective here* kind was with Daniel, a Tallinn native who was staying in the hostel because he'd run away from home. He prattled on about terrible fantasy novels for several minutes before turning to me and saying "so, tell me friend, how old you think I am?" Though I thought to myself he acted 14, he had a beard and dressed the part of the twentysomething hasn't-grown-out-of-his-punk
"Oh, not only was I here, my friend. I have a story for you. First of all, do you know what LARP is?"
(It is the sincere opinion of the author that LARPing is one of the lamest things a person can do. Basically it's like Society for Creative Anachronism stripped of all skill and credibility. People get dressed up in armor and fight each other with foam swords and cast imaginary spells on each other. Now that the reader is informed, we'll continue.)
"err...you mean live action role playing?"
"very good, my friend. Well, my friends and I are all very excited by LARP, so when we heard there were fights in street, ten of us dressed up in our chainmail and got our swords--REAL ones, you understand--and we went out into the city and started breaking things."
By this point I was uncomfortable.
"Then we saw some faggot in pink pants standing in front of Tallinn's gay club. We chased him away and then went inside and broke EVERYTHING and then drank all the liquor they had, even though they only had bacardi breezers."
By this point I was speechless.
"Then we went and robbed three kiosks, went home, and got drunk. It was one of the coolest nights of my life."
Picking my jaw up off the floor would have required finding it. I think it was under the couch somewhere. Jay pulled me away just in time, though; he said:
"okay, man, you coming or what?"
"Yeah, just a sec."
But Daniel wasn't done talking yet, so I cut him short and said "hey, I'd love to talk, but my boi (colloquial American sense) is waiting for me."
His expression changed to horror. "But you seem so cool. Are you telling me you're...one of those?"
I untangled what had just happened and decided he'd misconstrued "boi."
"No, man, I'm hetero."
He took this for its opposite.
"Well me, I'm more traditional man. I fucking hate gays."
I explained the difference between homo and hetero, and hurried to catch up with Jay, inexplicably telling Daniel to "be sure to enjoy his self-fashioned Disneyland of hatred..." I'm still not sure where that one came from.
Mercifully Daniel didn't live there. Laura, however, did, and she provided another curious little episode on this massive cavalcade across the frozen north. It all began when I noticed she was cute and interesting (and eighteen, but that's certainly more a demerit than anything), which led to me making excuses to sit next to her, talking to her, things like that. Long story g-rated, things were going swimmingly and I introduced her to Dr. Pepper in the BIG TEXAS restaurant in Tallinn. She introduced me to all her friends, showed me the town, things of that nature, and then she started completely ignoring me. I was more perplexed than upset, to be frank, because as soon as her interest waned, her best friend, Egle's, interest picked up. We had a Fiona Apple sing-a-long in the snowy streets of Tallinn and when four AM rolled around, she invited me to go back to her apartment with her buddies. Nothing untoward occurred, but I returned to the hostel in the morning to find my dormmates livid about the preceding night's events. Laura had stumbled in with two scotsmen at about five AM loud and blind drunk. She proceeded to make out with the Scottish dudes (yes, both of them) on my bed. So though I wasn't upset about Laura's disenfranchisement with me, I sure as hell would have been if she'd crashed in my room blitzed to have her way with two scotsmen. Bobby, an Australian, began to throw whatever was in easy reach at the amorous young'ns (God bless him, more about Bobby soon). This inventory included, based on the things on the bed the next morning, four pairs of socks, a boot, and a matryoshka doll. Laura left alright, but she said "let's go somewhere else and do something we'll regret!" And I suppose they did. My hat is off to them. Laura's interest magically returned the next day, when the Scots left. When she was asking if I was mad at her, I just answered "more amused than anything, really. Call me when you grow up."
The exclamation mark on this boisterous little triangle came on my final night in Tallinn, though. I was cuddled up with Egle (the best friend) on the common room couch at a VERY strange hour of the morning (like, seven, and I'd been up all night), and life was grand until she asked me what time it was. "Oh, it's 7:30." "Shit! I have to go to high school!"
The moral of the story, quoth both Aesop and Confucius, is that eighteen-year-olds are eighteen for a reason.
The next in the train of interesting and awesome folks I met was Bobby, an eighteen-year-old Persian-Australian who was loud, immature, annoying, and, due to his boundless energy, generosity, and ability to cook badass basmati rice, was also inescabably lovable. There are a lot of little mini-anecdotes I could tell you about Bobby, but I'll cut to a couple of really good ones.
It was Friday, which means, logically, it was time to blade about the town. Watching Bobby work his magic with women is amazing, because he is totally willing to look like an absolute idiot to get a girl's attention. The terrifying thing: it works. He was trying to talk to some Russian girls at Nimeta Baar (bar without a name), and he ran into a big ol' fat wall when he learned that they didn't speak a word of English. Now, when he came over to ask me to do some on-the-fly translation work, I thought he might have been subtly trying to give me an edge with these ladies. But here's how it worked. I introduced myself and Bobby, and I ask Bobby what he wanted to say.
"Ask her if she thinks I'm handsome."
This is Bobby.
His speaking volume in public places also defied rational belief. We were in the supermarket shopping for the evening's curry, and he was saying things like "Josh! JOSH! We need a lemon! Where can we find a lemon, a BIG, JUICY one?"
Me, much quieter: "we're in the produce section, Bobby, it shouldn't be difficult."
After shopping with me for five minutes, we had between four and six dishevelled gutter-zombies following us, hands extended. I used my elite-level ditching skills to put as much aesthetic distance between Bobby and me as quickly and efficiently as I could. I could still hear him several minutes later from the other side of the store "JOSH! JOSH! Where the hell are you? These guys are WEIRD!" Indeed they were, and indeed two of them were still tailing me through the supermarket. I mean, there was no real danger. It was the middle of the day in a nice supermarket, so I really couldn't help but chuckle when we got through checkout and watched the security kindly escort all of the scruffy smelly gentlemen from the premesis. I was livid at Bobby, however, especially when he said "Josh, you look pissed off. What's the matter?" After giving my companion a ten-minute lecture on rule number one of travelling (DO NOT DRAW UNNECESSARY ATTENTION TO YOURSELF UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES), he apologized, and I patted him on the head. It's his first time out of Australia, after all.
Bobby and I went to Helsinki together for a daytrip. It was remarkable how unremarkable Helsinki was. My impressions were that the city was materially self-obsessed and chronically drunk, though terminally overpriced. We were dying for food and ate at the European analogue of CiCi's Pizza: Rax Super Pizza Hall. All you can eat for 7 Euro? Count me in. There wasn't a great deal to see, since it was Sunday and all, and perhaps this is just me speaking after seven months in Central and Eastern Europe, but I found it incredibly off-putting how sterile, clean and organized Helsinki was. Not whirling in some degree of chaos made me really uncomfortable. This said, I suppose have no idea what I'm going to do when I get back to the States.
Though Helsinki wasn't much to write home about, the ferry certainly was. The Nordstar is a nine-story extravaganza of streamlined European capitalism. Maybe it was the eight onboard duty-free stores that make me say so, maybe it was the wide assortment of overpriced restaurants, maybe it was the four nightclubs...but it was overwhelming--a tiny Vegas on the water that would put any Tunica boat to utter shame.
But I digress slightly. Bobby was a central character for almost two weeks, and he required an immense supporting cast to keep him toned down within reason. This crowd included Tim, an Englishman who approached Bobby with the relentless love and violence of an older brother. Tim and I had lots of arguments about history, the worst of which involved a very drunk Tim telling me as the concluding point of a argument on WWII: "THE FRENCH HAD MORE BALLS IN WWII THAN THE AMERICANS HAD, HAVE, OR EVER WILL HAVE!" At that point I realized the vestiges of fact-based argument had been supplanted with the fertile grounds for an international name-calling derby. I wasn't biting. I finished my beer and said "see you at the hostel." He apologized profusely the next day, and again, it was more amusing than anything. Tim, however, remained in Tallinn.
Edo came with us...back to Riga. Edo was a Dutchman with brilliant English skills who shared my penchant for long insufferable saunas in the Tallinn hostel. There aren't any specific stories about him, but he was a great traveling companion, and my hat is off to him. My second visit to Riga was considerably better than my first, partly because of the company, partly because of the hostel, partly because I always love showing people around a city.
Tom was another Aussie we found in Riga, and he, like Bobby, was headed to Krakow after a planned daytrip in Vilnius. Like any dutiful przewodnik with a longing for Krakow in his heart, I agreed to show the boys around Vilnius and Krakow. At this point I figured I'd been gone from Gdansk for three weeks; what difference would four or five days make?
Vilnius was fine. The bus ride from Vilnius to Warszawa, however, was not. We sat in the back, and the bus had no shock absorbers to speak of. It was so bad in some places that we'd fly two feet out of our seats and hit our heads on the ceiling. Bobby was 6'5"; I felt especially bad for him. Once the road calmed down, Bobby slept on the floor, I on the bench seat above him. Unfortunately the calm part of the road didn't last long; I was thrown up, bounced off the rear cushion, and landed on Bobby; all I could hear was a muffled "get...off...me!" from beneath. The worst moment, however, came when I discovered, much to the dismay of my aching bladder, that the bathroom on the bus was locked and the driver wasn't willing to fork over the key. This called for improvisation.
As I began peeing into the massive water bottle, everything was fine. Then we hit a rough patch, and though I tried my damnedest to stay...attached...to the bottle, I failed and splashed the inside of the bus window and the adjacent seat cushion with urine. This made it considerably more awkward at border control, where they scrutinized my passport for a solid ten minutes. They must've wondered what an American was doing in Lithuania smelling of urine. They told me my paperwork wasn't in order, and I was pleasantly surprised when they just told me to be careful instead of soliciting a bribe. Still not sure what was wrong with my papers. I mean, granted, I've technically overstayed my welcome in the Shengin Pact bloc, but nothing in my passport can really prove that, now that they've abolished the majority of border control.
I was beside myself to be back-ow in Krakow, and I really think I imparted upon Bobby and Tom just how unconscionably awesome the town is. Bobby, Tom and I went our separate ways, but then another strange thing happened. I met a girl. Her name's Ania, and she's sweet as hell, loves scrabble, spicy food, writing, reading and has big green eyes and the dearest little round face. She and her Polish posse were in Krakow for a few days on a little respite from Warszawa's concrete jungle. She invited me to see her in Warszawa, and I was under the mistaken assumption that she lived with her sister in some kind of student housing. She lives with the folks, and her dad was a higher-up in the Polish Navy for many years and now works for the defense department. He's pretty much the traditional stern army dad: if he likes you, he likes you a lot. If he dislikes you, you worry about whether or not you'll wake up the next morning. He likes me a lot. It was a lovely few days, and we saw a good Polish rock concert and hit up an awful romantic comedy (my first in another language, and I'm STILL completely unimpressed with the genre.) The movie was called Lejdis...the phoneticized Polish of ladies. It was basically what would happen if you took one part "Sisters" (for those of you who still remember the 1994ish series), five parts "Sex and the City," took away any vestiges of plot and made it wholly terrible.
From there I went back to Gdansk.
And here I am, back in Danzig visa purgatory, reunited with all my stuff, untouched as it is. I was really amazed how much I enjoyed travelling for a month with two t-shirts and two pairs of pants. Aside of not missing the extra 80-odd pounds that came with the rest of my luggage, I really was happy knowing that everything I minded losing was on my person at all times. If this trip has done anything, it's made me incredibly detached from my material possessions and hopefully in the long-term, more connected to the interpersonal connections that comprise the really important things in life.
In other news, Tomek wasn't even mad about my absence; I just got a few good-natured kurwy thrown my way. I'm sure, however, that the two bottles of vodka I brought him in thanks eased any tensions that might've existed beforehand.
So...life's rad. I'll try to take less than a month and a half to write next time, for sure. If Belarus is coming up, I'm sure I'll have some adventures from hell to send your way. Please keep reading and bear with me, even though my entries are sporadic at best.
J. Brandon Harris
Monday, January 28, 2008
Dear Foundation Members, Fellows, Colleagues, and Parties Yet Unknown:
It saddens me to mention that my calendar year abroad will be one-half complete in two days. My second quarter has been a rollercoaster ride, a series of inconveniences, scary moments, bizarre encounters, and triumphs. Though my hockey possibilities have blossomed into dizzying profusion, the cultural experiences in the past quarter (hockey-connected and otherwise) have proven far more influential on my year so far. Here's a brief summary of my activities.
When I last wrote you, I had every intent of leaving Poland for Kaliningrad, the Baltics, and parts unknown. At the time of my previous report, however, I couldn't've possibly anticipated the kindness and generosity of the Polish people. After my fruitless scouting trip to Ukraine, I returned to Warszawa discouraged. The hostel had no room for me and I was in dire straits; I took a gamble and called a chance Warszawian acquaintance who'd offered me accommodation weeks prior in a smoky Krakow bar. The week that ensued dashed my negative initial impressions of the Polish capital against the rocks; Pawel Godlewski showed me the side of Warszawa that the tourists don't see: the side with a vibrant cultural event happening every night and loads of friendly people who aren't perpetually in a hurry. I spent my time there brushing up on my Polish slang, going to cultural festivals of all sorts, and speaking snatches of Russian with Pawel's female friends, who were enrolled in the Russian language master's program at the local university. I cooked a delicious Thanksgiving dinner for the whole crew and got them in on American holiday tradition.
I was just starting to get a little tired of Warszawa when I received an unexpected email from my team in Krakow: they'd entered an upcoming tournament and wanted me to play for them, if I were still in Poland. Though the tournament itself wasn't much to write home about, it opened a door to A) a much longer stay in Poland and B) perhaps the most rewarding experiences of my trip so far. I extended my Krakow stay because I was waiting to go home to Biskupice with my friend Pawel (Janik, not Godlewski). He and his family thought it would be a shame for me to be alone on Christmas, so he extended me an invitation to a traditional Polish Christmas extravaganza in his home. Though my family has its own traditions (snack food all day, cinnamon buns for breakfast), my holiday at the Janik household was something altogether different and extremely special. For a few days, I was a part of traditions that Poles have observed for hundreds of years, from the exchange of wishes and strictly-fish dinner on Christmas Eve to the Christmas Day twelve-course meal and drinkstravaganza. Said drinkstravaganza featured maybe a little too much of Mr. Janik's delicious homemade strawberry rocket fuel. Aside from the warmth and companionship I found in the Janik household, my best Christmas present involved fulfilling one of the goals on the master checklist I wrote at the beginning of the year: I got to play hockey on a lake as the sun set in the distance. I've been trying to send you pictures for basically forever, but hostel internet is unreliable at best, nonexistent at worst.
I went to Gdansk from Biskupice, and after I shrugged aside my cat-related allergy woes (the Janiks had three cats), I began to search out teams. It bears mention that at this point my Polish, though far from fluent, is completely functional. I sent emails in readable Polish to four teams in the area, and I got multiple positive responses. I was elated to actually have the ability to choose a team. One team was a bunch of showboating jerks who weren't nearly good enough to justify the bloodthirsty seriousness with which they approached the game. Another team was extremely disorganized and unfriendly. The team I've stayed with the longest on the trip so far, though (Gdynski Klub Hokejowy), has provided the most rewarding hockey games yet. They actually have organized tri-weekly practices and they scrimmage twice a week. Playing five times a week sounded like my idea of a good time. I made a big impact, and their captain asked if I'd be interested in staying on to play with them for the rest of the season. I was so enthusiastic I even emailed Watson central to notify them of my quandry and potential change in plans. Only recently did I find out, however, that it's not totally up to the GKH if I get to play. The league has a governing body that has to approve my place on the team. The league requires papers saying that you've never played professionally, and since my league in the US provided no such documentation, my chances are nonexistent. It came as something of a blow, but it's at least helped me reprioritize. Now I'm in the Baltics, where the hockey has been all but absent, but I'll go and reseat myself in Gdansk until my visas for Kaliningrad and Belarus come through.
I realize I've waffled a bit about whether or not I can go to Kaliningrad, but one of the most bizarre moments in my trip came after one of my hockey games in Gdansk. Two of my teammates are Kaliningraders of unusual background. They drive VERY nice cars, curse incessantly, and were so happy I spoke Russian that they took me and my Russo-Polish teammate to dinner at a four-star restaurant after scrimmage one night. I was curious what they did to put them in such comfortable financial standing, so I asked Sergei “so what do you do?” He and his friend had a healthy chortle and then there was a long pause. Sergei's friend, Erik, answered for him “Sergei is...a businessman.” Between that and their assertion that they had “friends who would be more than happy to help me” at the Russian consulate, I couldn't help but think, upon leaving, that I'd just had dinner with the Russian mafia.
The quarter had its share of mishaps too, unfortunately. Two near-miss muggings in Krakow put me on my toes, and the admittedly peaceful robbery in Gdansk's old town proved that walking on the street anywhere is just a roll of the dice. The robbery itself was nowhere near as irritating as the subsequent difficulties I had retrieving my luggage from the train station--before the thugs who took my locker key got there first. Strength comes through adversity, though, so I took the chance to use my Polish in a series of stressed phone calls with the luggage bureau. A few days and approximately 200 zloty later, I had my luggage back just in time for my first scrimmage with GKH. I think it may have been the only time I've ever enjoyed carrying my bag. Ultimately there are good and bad people everywhere, and sometimes no amount of careful planning and awareness can save you from a seedy situation. Managing the aftermath is decidedly the line between novice travelers and more advanced ones. For instance, unlike a gentleman I met in a hostel who wouldn't go out because he was afraid of getting beaten by Russians, I haven't let these little patches of scariness compromise my resolve.
Hence since Gdansk I've headed for points north, namely Vilnius and Trakai, Lithuania, Riga, Latvia, and I'm presently writing you from Tallinn, Estonia, at the end of my Baltic Segue. Though hockey connections have been sparse, the languages and cultures here are so quirky and isolated from the rest of Europe that I'm staying a little longer in the region before returning to Gdansk; I want to get more than just a cursory idea of what's happening in these fascinating places. To substantiate, though sandwiched between major hockey powers (Russia and the Scandinavian countries), the Baltic nations even express their eccentricity through their choices of national sports. Lithuanians play and watch basketball like madmen. Hence every Lithuanian student who tried to start a conversation about the NBA immediately ran into a roadblock of my ignorance on the subject of hoops. From my time in Riga, I've determined that the unofficial Latvian national sport must be organized crime. Estonia, finally and perhaps most bizarrely, boasts extraordinary skill in the field of table football. I'm not terrible myself, but I can't begin to enumerate the times Estonians have destroyed me at foosball.
My flexibility and adaptability continue to grow and flourish. I had no intention whatsoever of spending so long in Poland, but the longer I was there, the more I felt I had to learn before I was satisfied. I suppose I've been that way since I was small; I'd research whatever interested me at the time until I found out what I wanted to know. Having such a massive research/play ground to indulge my curiosities has been immensely rewarding, and my ability to keep my itinerary flexible has yielded some amazing experiences that would have been otherwise impossible. The longer this trip has gone on, the more I've learned to follow my instincts, and not just about where I'm going to find fruitful hockey options, but about people, places, and situations of all shapes and sizes. So while my second quarter has yielded some great games, some great friends, and a whole new pack of language skills and cultural knowledge, I can't really word a lot what I've learned. Traveling is just like any other undertaking in life; you meet good and bad people, and even though you evolve and adapt to circumstances as they present themselves, perhaps the most important thing of all is maintaining a stable core. I've tried to keep in touch with my roots while immersing myself in my surroundings as thoroughly as possible. One really trivial example illustrates my point very well: I met a group of Estonian students who took me for a really nice meal of all the national favorite foods. In return, I took them to the only place I've seen in in this part of the world so far that sells Dr. Pepper. They'd never had it, and I thought that a terrible shame. On the surface, it was a fairly unimportant exchange, but the small things we exchange with others add up. And as we learn from each other, we grow together and perhaps bridge the gaps between individuals and nations. Our Dr. Pepper festival began a lively and fruitful discussion about Estonian culture, international politics and the ideas of America. I won't be so presumptuous to say that I changed anyone's mind about my country, but I planted a seed, and maybe someday, with a little nurturing and positive interaction, that seed will grow into something great.
Whether in rink, locker room, hostel, or bar, I have so much to learn from everyone I meet. Last quarter I was so concerned with finding a team that I'm sure I must have missed some really fabulous opportunities along the way. Now that the hockey's coming easily, though, I've been filling the interstices learning how different we are, and, more importantly, learning how much we all have in common. It's my sincere intention for this all not to sound...fruity. It bears mention, though, that I'm continually amazed, because that even beyond the uniting power of sport that I mentioned in my initial application and last report, there's something even deeper: the simple fact that there's always something to discuss, something to learn from others. It just takes some words in another language, some mutual patience, and a healthy dose of goodwill.
With fond regards and sincere thanks to all involved,
P.S. Pictures are forthcoming; I PROMISE.
Thursday, January 10, 2008
I've been extremely busy and happy since my last blog entry. Perhaps the cultural highlight of my trip so far has been my incredible Christmas with the Janik family. They welcomed me into their home with a generosity and openness that I can neither express nor adequately repay. Pawel's village of Biskupice is five hours' trainride from Krakow, and the journey was pleasant, even, since I had a handy porter for some of my luggage :-P. We changed trains in Katowice, and ate at a restaurant that can only be described as a hellmouth. It was lit by a single sodium lamp, and the roof leaked into my soup a couple of times. It was charming, and the pictures look like an Edward Hopper painting. Nighthawks meets Texas Chainsaw Massacre. I had some goulash with some incomprehensible and mysterious meat. Somehow "cat goulash" has a nice ring to it. Bums stumbled around our table in various states of intoxication and disarray. If the restaurant were in the American South, it would have been the scene for a Carson McCullars story (Balada Smutnego Kafe?). But I digress.
The holiday began with a big hug from Pani Janik, a refrigerator raid for tasty sausage, and an immediate excursion to hang out with Pawel's rowdy friends. Now, Biskupice is a very, very small town (900 people), so, just like in Batesville, you have to make your own fun sometimes. Our fun the first night consisted of throwing rocks at walls, cannonballing cheap champagne, and generally enjoying each others' company. The following day was Christmas Eve, which for Polish Catholics means no meat. No meat means fish. Eastern Europeans have bizarre penchants for icthyoids, and I made sure to keep a running tally of the foods I tried that I might not have on my own turf. I'll preface this by mentioning that ALL the food was good, even the things that struck me as...odd. Though not exclusively from Christmas Eve fare, see how these strike your mind's tongue (a potentially gross analogy):
1) Pickled herring wrapped around a pickle wedge
2) Fried carp
3) Mackerel paste
4) Zurek, a soup made from moldy rye bread
5) A chicken soup-like substance suspended in gelatin instead of broth
The twelve-course meal on Christmas day was enormous and delicious. Two soups, two meats, four kinds of salads, two kinds of cabbage, and then polished off with almond-poppyseed cake and some of Pan Janik's homemade strawberry-flavored rocket fuel. I haven't eaten that much in months upon months. Christmas night consisted of going back out with the gang. All six of us piled into the Trabant and drove around, as you do in a small town, and we ended up taking turns holding on to the roof rack as we barrelled down a dirt road. Then we walked on the lake. It was grand.
More amazing times on the lake were to be had the day after Christmas, when Pawel gave me a Christmas present I could never have expected. He said "get your stick and skates" I decided against asking questions and said "okay." Fifteen minutes later we were back on the lake, and I was putting my skates on this time. Playing hockey outdoors, without boards or boundaries, absolutely must be the most exhilirating feeling ever. It's just freedom: the wind on your face, the frozen lake grass visible just inches beneath you, the setting sun in the distance that looks as though if you skated across the lake, you could touch it and hold it with your two hands...but it's still a pain in the ass when you miss the puck and have to skate a third of a kilometer to get the damn thing.
It bears mention that the Janik family has three cats: Julian, Mishka, and Burek. Burek was by far the coolest; he was enormous, hid in dark corners, and snuck onto the kitchen counter to eat leftovers whenever he could. The family dog, Sznappy, was extraordinarily awesome and full of energy. I'm not here to tell you about the dog, though. I'm here to tell you about the cumulative effects of cats on my respiratory system. I have an asthmatic allergic reaction to cats, and after three days, I was utterly miserable. In the process of bidding the Janik family a fond farewell, I noticed how miserable I was just going up the house's main staircase-- without my luggage. I could scarcely imagine hauling my things for not one but two train changes. It was simply a matter of necessity, though, so I bore with it. Now I have another train story, though it's not nearly as embarrassing as my last. I've been on the road for over five months now, and I pride myself on doing an adequate job of, if not fitting in, at least not getting in anyone's way. I broke that streak on the train and finally pretended that I just didn't get it. Polish (PKP) trains are outfitted with large luggage cars at the beginning and end of the train. My particular train, however, had a staff lounge instead of the large baggage cart at the end. I started to put down my luggage in the large room when a PKP ice queen asked "a co pan robi?" (what is the gentleman doing?). I thought about answering that I was putting my luggage down, but instead just said "slucham?" (I'm sorry?). I was ashamed of playing the "DUMB" card, but considering my pulmonary state, I decided I'd let someone else be inconvenienced for once. She proceeded to explain that I needed to go to the other end of the train. I understood her perfectly and nodded and smiled a lot, but in the end just took the nearest available seat in the adjacent car. My luggage took the seat next to me. The train went from empty to full very, very quickly, and people were going to get the same employee and yelling about my bag and how it was taking up valuable space for unimportant things like children and husbands. I simply did not care, no matter how much she yelled at me. I gasped for breath, pretended to be asleep, and smiled and nodded in the interstices until she left me alone, though I certainly noticed when she switched from the formal to the informal manner of address. Not my proudest moment, but it was a matter of self-preservation. I felt like switching ends of the train via the platform, as the lady suggested, would not only have caused the train to leave without me, but also to be rolling the dice with my health. Changing trains in Poznan was bad enough, and I didn't want to add ANY unnecessary steps.
Upon arrival at Gdansk Glowny, I chucked my hockey bag into short-term storage at the station and proceeded to Baltic Hostel, which I found in short order, and immediately had to adapt to a new hostel environment: upon my arrival, instead of seeing the smoky common room full of young faces I'm used to, I saw a smoky common room with a bunch of people who'd obviously been there a while. None of them were under forty. None of them spoke English. On first impression, it seemed like walking into a John Waters movie with Polish subtitles. To their credit, though, they're all dears in their own way. You have Artur, the bizarre fortysomething who spends hours a day on the internet looking for a woman. No one knows what he does to make money, where he's from, or any other details that ultimately prove trivial in la vie hostel. There's Fredek, who moments after meeting me wanted to sell me a really nice silk new blazer that he just had lying around. It was too big, and what the hell would I do with another blazer anyway? No matter what time of day it is, he's always encouraging me to eat, "or else you won't grow." There's the slightly-less-likeable and trustworthy Marek, who doesn't have to wear a "ask me about my grandkids" t-shirt, because chances are pretty good that he will anyway. And if he thinks you didn't get all of it, he'll tell you again. And again. And again. I suppose the quantity of vodka the man drinks would do that to anyone. Presiding over it all is Tomek, a man who might be a better fit for times where there were Teutonic knights and crusades and legitimate excuses for chopping people in half with swords. He's a jolly Polish man with an enormous moustache, twinkling eyes, and a jolly Polish belly to match. He makes a different soup every night, and when the hostel guests are being too loud, he produces a great axe from behind the couch and jokingly (or maybe not) brandishes it at the offending parties. All that's missing is the morbidly obese woman-child in a playpen demanding her eggs (see Pink Flamingos).
I went straight to bed; this was far too much input to handle. My recovery from my catass lung nightmare redux continued the next day, when I didn't bring myself out of bed til just before the sun set. I wandered toward the center and discovered that Gdansk is staggeringly beautiful. Though it was bombed into heaps of dirt and rubble in WWII, the center of Gdansk has been restored in all its Dutch Renaissance glory. I meandered along the canals and the long market, but, not knowing where the safe places were and weren't, I returned to the hostel before ten. A pair of new guests had checked in to my room, and to my dismay, one of them had sleep apnea. The room was a tumult of snoring until he just...stopped breathing. Just as I'd drift off, it'd start up again. This went on for several hours, and he finally rolled over, which solved the problem. As I was resigning myself to sweet rest at last, however, a troupe of Slovenian college kids trundled in fresh off the train (it was 5:00). I sat bolt upright in bed and mumbled unrepeatable things in four languages. The day had begun.
Though sleep-deprived, I decided not to be bitter and sieze the day. I got a pre-dawn kebab (perhaps the best kind) and hit the town center just in time for sunrise. The pictures were good, but hardly an adequate representation of the crisp morning. As quickly as I discovered the beauty of Gdansk's center, I discovered that, like most port cities, it gets seedy quickly. In America, you have gang violence. In Poland, you have soccer hooliganism, which is basically the same thing, only better-organized, more condoned, and on a larger scale. Tagging and shoe displays are universal, though, so when I saw the Reeboks slung over the telephone wire, my first thought was not "hey! free shoes!," but "get me the hell out of Dodge." Needless to say I've stuck to well-lit and populated thoroughfares. This didn't help me too much on one occasion, as you'll see.
After the sleepless night and the gorgeous dawn, I'd seen all there was to see in the city center by 9:30. Let's go to the beach. Now, Gdansk is a city by the sea in the loosest sense of the word. The shore is about five kilometers from most of the residential areas, largely due to port pollution concerns. I have a general philosophy: when I'm in a new city, I avoid public transit for the first few days so I can get a real feel for the city plan and the logistics, and not just zip blissfully from place to place. More often than not, this means I walk absurd distances for my first couple of days in a city. And so I did. I walked 16 kilometers my first day, all the way to Westerplatte, the first site of Nazi invasion in WWII. On the way, I found an outdoor market which sold everything from hand-knit clothes to used underwear to half a guitar to hardcore pornography. I crossed over the Pope John Paul II bridge and down a long stretch of barren road surrounded on both sides by freight tracks and intimidating industrial sites. The beach, however, was charming--and covered in frost. As a southern boy, I found something intrinsically novel about frost on a beach. The pictures will be up someday.
Things got pear-shaped on my second night. My hockey gear was still in its railway station locker. I knew I'd have to pay an additional eight zloty ($3) for keeping it there an extra day, but that didn't seem so bad. I was walking around not far from the center of town, and I noticed I was being followed by three imposing-looking youths. They were gaining on me. I looked for a cozy pub or supermarket or person I could walk with or anything at all, but none availed itself in time. In an admirably-executed maneuver, one guy passed me and blocked me, and the other two steered me into an alleyway. I'm not sure why I didn't panic--it was more of a forehead-smacking "DAMMIT" moment. They wanted my money. I just had what was in my pockets, which was 50 zloty, or about $20. Far more important is what was NOT in my pockets: I didn't have my passport, my credit card, my camera, or else anything of particular value. They were sure I had more than 50 zloty, though, so they said "pockets." I turned them inside out, and lo and behold, there was no more money, but out popped the key to my locker at the station. "That too." I shook my head, handed it over, and told them to enjoy themselves. They walked away chuckling, and I walked away grateful that I wasn't carrying anymore than I was and that they just wanted some beer money through illegal means.
I was NOT grateful, however, for the inconvenience my dispossessed key caused me. Further research indicated that the storage lockers required an initial payment of 8zl for twenty-four hours' use. The subsequent twenty-four hours would incur an additional payment of 32zl, and for every twelve hours after forty-eight, an additional 32zl would be added to the total. After 72 hours, the company forcibly removes your baggage from the locker and deports it to Katowice (the above-mentioned hellmouth), a 12-hour trainride from Gdansk, where you must retrieve it. When I was robbed, I was in the Purgatorial "between twenty-four and forty-eight" zone. The customer service number for this company was conspicuously absent; a website was the only thing supplied. I went to the website and found that the company had lockerboxes as something of a whimsical side-venture. They were an investment company, and, out of desperation, I contacted the only email address I could find on the site, an address to which you're supposed to send business plans, investment ideas, and the like. My email's subject heading read in all caps: MAM OGROMNY PROBLEM "I HAVE AN ENORMOUS PROBLEM," and detailed my unfortunate situation as best as my Polish would allow. Mercifully the response was prompt. Time was ticking down, hooligans had my key, and she supplied me with a number. I called it. It was December 30, and the answering machine message said "closed for holidays." My luggage was accruing exhorbitant fines (or, worse, in Katowice), hooligans had access to my things, and a machine was telling me "wait until next year." Glorious. The matter sorted itself out in time. After a series of confusing phone calls in smatterings of four languages, it became evident that my luggage was right where I left it, the locker had not been opened, and there would be a tidy fee for getting it out. The Polish service industry isn't as prompt and cruel as its American counterpart, so my luggage never made it to Katowice. I accepted this fact as a holiday gift. Happy New Year. I paid the nice man with the keys his 136 zloty and was ALMOST glad to have that old, familiar weight hanging from my shoulder again as I carried my nasty burden back to the hostel. I was far more glad that the completed first volume of my journal wasn't gone. Replacing my hockey equipment would have been a pain in the ass, even though I love shopping, but I really might have cried if my journal had gone missing. On the whole I'm just glad I have all my shit back.
So now that you know about the mean streets of Gdansk, I'll tell you who I think is behind my robbery and luggage miseries. In a little perechod, I saw "bylem tu--Osama Bin Laden" (I was here--Osama Bin Laden) spray painted on the wall. Al-Qaeda works in mysterious ways, and we'd sure as hell never think to look for him in Gdansk, Poland.
The hockey aspect in Gdansk is, perhaps as expected, more complicated than in previous ventures. As my Polish has blossomed beyond the rudimentary and into the functional, my emails to various teams have become less and less sloppy. In fact, it was merciful that Jan, my contact in Krakow, understood English reasonably well, because when I look back on the initial email I sent him in Polish, it's unreadable. But before I came to Gdansk, I sent emails to four teams. One didn't reply, one said there was no space on the roster, one replied with a terse "Tuesday 21:00. Saturday 22:00," and one replied with an email in English offering me a heartfelt welcome to their practice on Friday. I recieved this email on Thursday, so I took the opportunity to walk to the rink. It's a six-kilometer walk, and when I got there, it was early yet, so I decided to go to the green-looking oceanside spot on my map known as "Ronald Reagan Park" (no kidding). So I walked and walked and walked. It was worthwhile, but when I returned, I looked back on my map to discover that I'd walked about 24 kilometers round-trip. My feet were ridiculously sore, and so were my hands; I bought two kilos of pierogies and New Year's champagne (two bottles, enough for everyone at the hostel) at a little supermarket not far from the beach. About thirty seconds after I was through the checkout line it occurred to me what a staggeringly stupid idea this was. I walked twelve kilometers with groceries. The above doesn't sound like a lot, but after 3k, it's grating. After 6, it's unbearable--and you're only halfway home.
I wasn't really sure how I managed to stand in the morning, much less how I managed to skate that evening. But skate I did, for Gdynski Klub Hokejowy (GKH), and they liked me. I liked them. A bunch. Walking to the tram stop was difficult, though. When I skated for the first time in Prague, I remember being amazed that I didn't have better endurance because of all the walking I'd been doing. I forgot that you use a completely different set of muscles for skating than walking. It was a bane in Prague, but it helped me out a lot here in Gdansk. I'd walked myself into the dirt in a way that I hadn't since Warsaw, but I've been playing a fair amount lately, so though my walking muscles were close to shot, my skating muscles were in fine form. Grzegorz (my contact on the team) hinted at wanting me to stay for the whole season, which, though the prospect elates me, it complicates the whole nature of my project, but I'll cross that bridge when I come to it.
My Saturday game wasn't nearly as encouraging. The team, the Tri-City Twisters, were a bunch of jerks. They threw KURWA after KURWA (THE Polish swearword) at me for not playing in their system. Now, I would have accepted the criticism if I'd been able to discern some kind of system in the way they played hockey, but to me it just looked like they were trying not to run into each other. It was bad disorganized hockey masquerading as bad organized hockey. Furthermore, when we were scrimmaging, they were total babies about taking a good, clean American hit, even though they were clearly playing full-contact. They didn't say I couldn't come back, but I don't think I will unless I'm just looking for extra ice time.
Since then I've started to get a little attached to my GKH buddies. They practice in a seasonal 1/3 regulation-sized rink in Gdynia, a 20-minute trainride from Gdansk. Our locker room for these practices, in size and amenity, is somewhere between a basement and a garage designed for two small motorcycles. Eighteen people and eighteen hockey bags share this impossibly cramped space, and we change in shifts. You're lucky if you're on first shift, because then you don't have to wade through hockey bags to get out of the locker room. Barn-burning, no-frills ghetto hockey: the way I was raised and the way I like it.
Yes, I know it's been a month. Yes, I know this thing may have felt longer than Hiawatha, but I hope it was at least more interesting.