Thursday, March 13, 2008

Hel Week

I'll preface this entry with something that isn't quite a correction, but something approaching it. Since the time of last writing, I've recieved a notification that I was perhaps misinformed about the nature of the bedroom fiasco. Let it be known that I was only relaying events as I heard and understood them, and since this isn't a court of law, heresay is plenty admissable. I would apologize to anyone who got their feelings hurt by my nigh-verbatim retelling of Bobby and Kellie's story, but the apologies frankly aren't mine to give. The story's considerably funnier as it stands, even if the firsthand storytellers might have been groggy and not seen things quite correctly through sleep-fog and insufficient light. So I suppose in summary I'm sorry for not being sorry. Now let's begin.

Hell Week.

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 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 " 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

The Great Baltic Cavalcade

"Nie, nie...będzie jeszcze raz za cztery dni! Na czwartek, na pewno!" (No, no...I'll be back again in four days! On Thursday, for sure!" Those were my last words at Gdansk's Baltic Hostel--five weeks ago. Since I got no replies from any of the Baltic teams, I left my hockey equipment in Tomek's trustworthy care and packed off to see what these quirky, linguistically and culturally isolated little countries were all about. What I found were baffling languages, beautiful streets, and a fierce sense of cultural independence from the rest of Europe.

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-phase-yet unemployee, so I guessed "21." This was apparently the nicest thing anyone had said to him in a long time; his face lit up and he said "no, my friend, you are wrong. sixteen." He proceeded to regale me with some macho drinking anecdotes and a story too angsty and uninteresting to recount here, and when I had enough, I thought I'd see if I could learn something interesting from him. Boy did I ever. I asked him: "So, were you here for the Tallinn riots?"

"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.)
" 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' 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 "!" 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 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.'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.

Wszystko dobrego.

J. Brandon Harris