Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Selected Anecdotes from Eastern Europe

Dear Readership:

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?"

Agnieszka does.

"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?)
"Da, Amerikanyets."
"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 harrijb1@gmail.com. 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: jharris@alumni.sewanee.edu.


OBJECTIVE: employment utilizing strong writing, editing, and interpersonal skills

SUMMARY:
• 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

EDUCATION:
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

EXPERIENCE:
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)
(2004-2007)
• Chairman, Student Activities Fee Committee (2005-2007)
• Technical Director, Dionysus Theatre Company (2003-2006)
• Treasurer and Academic Chair, Lambda Chi Alpha Fraternity at Sewanee
(2005-2007)
• Student Liaison, Library Affairs Committee, (2004-2007)
• Chairman, Order of Gownsmen Grievances Committee (2007)
• Personal research and bibliographic assistant for Dr. Elizabeth Outka
(2006)
• Vice President of Recruitment and Intramural Athletics, Interfraternity
Council (2006-2007)
• 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)

REFERENCES:
Dr. William Clarkson

Professor, Sewanee English Department

735 University Avenue

Sewanee, Tennessee, 37383

bclarkso@sewanee.edu

(931)-598-1262


Dr. Elizabeth Skomp
Assistant Professor of Russian, Sewanee Russian Department
735 University Avenue
Sewanee, Tennessee, 37383
eskomp@sewanee.edu
(931)-598-1254

Dr. Pamela Royston Macfie
Samuel R. Williamson Distinguished University Professor, Sewanee English Department
735 University Avenue
Sewanee, Tennessee, 37383
pmacfie@sewanee.edu
(931)-598-1138

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,

Josh

10 comments:

Robert B. said...

"Tony from Liverpool" was brilliant!!

Expensive taxi rides when you're in a tight spot can be fun (for the adrenaline factor); did I ever tell you about my 120 m/hr taxi ride across Paris?

The last paragraph was really beautiful. I know Carole would be so proud of you.

Anonymous said...

Serbia is not mine ridden... Where did you get that from?

GMarc said...

Mine ridden or not, the lack of affection for Americans as demostrated by the burning of our embassy would be reason enough to worry about being stuck somewhere outside of Belgrade or Novisad. No, the land mines are in palces like Bosnia and Kosovo. Let us not forget that the former Yugoslavia was a made-up country held together by one very strong man named Tito. I won't begin to get into my feelings about Milosevic and genocide.

Son, I was touched by mention of your mom. She has been a driving force in both of our lives and the hole that is left by her departure will always be with us. I choose to believe that memories and lessons, perhaps long buried, will come to fill the hole and strengthen us as we move on. She will always be with us.

I am so looking forward to your return and having you to myself albeit for 18 hours. Love ya much, Dad

Anonymous said...

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)

GMarc said...

Anonymous: You appear to have problems with me. Take it up with me, not my son. Here's my email: geegollee@gmail.com.

Anonymous said...

I am not gonna "take it up" with you, cowboy, or anyone else. My initial comment had nothing to do with you, but you son's mis-representation. All I did was posted a comment for a false information. His blog could be read by many people, who may get a wrong impression, from his fallacious thinking. If I said "I was stranded in Corpus Christi, which is overran by Mexican drug lords" is a false comment, as much as your son's of Serbia being a "mine ridden" country. My ONLY problem is in fallacy! And nothing else!

That is the only thing that bugs me, and it is YOU (and obviously not your son) that have a problem with that. I have no clue why you even brought Yugoslavia as a topic.... It's irrelevant to my comment. All I am asking is, knowing how Americans are mis-portrayed in the world by their general lack of knowledge (which you son exhibited by stating what he stated), that in future he refrains from his "personal" views of countries he obviously does not know much about. The man who drove him a hundred kilometer to the next city obviously did not hurt him, rob him or killed him, despite your argument that it should have happen given recent developments in the Balkans (yet another example of US' involvement and 'concerns' elsewhere in the world, while more than half of US population has no medical coverage). The only thing that taxi driver could be thinking now is how dumb could it be not to research in advance railway connections in foreign lands.

Your in_you_face jumping, arguing and bringing irrelevant topics all of a sudden (I think you have straight up assumed I was from Serbia?!) to a side comment, shows this in_your_face American attitude that is unfortunately prevalent in the culture, and giving Americans who are not like that, a bad rep. "Take it up with me" - I mean, come on! It's almost something I would expect to hear from a hard core Republican.

You are very jumpy for a liberal.

Tom said...

(yet another example of US' involvement and 'concerns' elsewhere in the world, while more than half of US population has no medical coverage)

Roughly 15% of the US population, considerably less than half, lacked medical coverage at some point during 2006 (the last year for which complete data is available). Had you done the research before commenting, you would not have made a grossly inaccurate statement based on caricature.

I'm just saying.

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