Saturday, July 31, 2010

My Great + Grandfather

Storks in Nacmierz
NACMIERZ, POLAND I reached Nacmierz through a narrow winding rutty paved road lined with elm trees. A sign indicated I had arrived, but there was no store, no gas station, no school, no church, no cemetery, just a row of houses, barns, and sheds surrounded by wheat fields and groves of trees, with an occasional hunting blind. Two storks were grazing on the side of the road and high above, on an electrical post, two more were tending their nest. I pulled over to take a picture of the storks as some young kids walked by. "Is this Nacmierz," I asked. They didn't understand me. I repeated the name slowly, pointing to the ground. "Tak, Tak, Nacmierz," the older girl excitedly responded. So I found it, the birthplace of Martin Vehlow, my great + grandfather, who, with his wife Christine, and their four children, had emigrated from this very town in 1853 to settle in Watertown, Wisconsin.

What prompted them to leave? There's little in the way of the Nacmierz landscape that would distinguish it from the countryside around Watertown. Were the Poles giving them trouble? At the time of Martin's birth in 1810 the town was called by its German name, Natzmershagen, but at the time of their last child's birth in 1850 it was known by its Polish name Nacmierz. Maybe it was the land reforms that Frederick William III, then King of Prussia, had implemented strongly strengthening the patrimonial privileges of landlords. Maybe it was the doctrinal church reforms the same King imposed that would have watered down the family's conservative articles of faith. Or maybe it was the massive amount of advertising in German papers that towns like Watertown were doing to attract settlers? We have no record of their reasoning, but their discontent and hopes for a better life were clearly strong enough for them to leave everything, undertake a 54-day cross-Atlantic journey, and start a new life, perhaps not exactly as Americans, but as German Lutherans in America.

Just four kilometers from Nacmierz, on the Baltic coast, is Jaroslaweic, surreal, in contrast to the stark ruralness of this entire region, a 50s like beach resort town, with kitsch laden shops, ice cream stands, snack bars, and hoards of flip-flopping, kids schlepping parents - beach towels and air floats of every imaginable configuration in tow. By their language and dress, the beachgoers didn't come from far, perhaps from Slawno or Slupsk, the two largest nearby towns. I wondered if anything like this existed when the Vehlows lived here and whether in leaving it had caused any regrets. I know how strong an attraction the ocean has for our own family. It would be difficult to leave Montara. I wished I could have lingered awhile, absorbing this idyllic throwback in time, the sun-drenched beach, and more of the beer that was flowing freely, but I had to get my rental car back to Slupsk and find a place to sleep for the night.

Friday, July 30, 2010

The Dentist in Poland Are Very Good

NHS Dentist
GDANSK, POLAND I had dinner tonight with Chris, a gentleman from Kent, England, who's here to have two root canals and a broken tooth fixed. "The dentists in Poland are very good and I can get it done for 1/3 of what it costs in England." "But don't you have a National Health System in England," I asked. "We do, but it's inefficent and costly. My NHS dentist insisted I see a private doctor. He didn't feel qualified to do the work." Chris continued, "Nine out of ten doctors opt out of the NHS because they don't get paid enough and those that remain aren't very good. The system in England is okay if you're dying on the street but if you have anything that is remotely elective, you wait, don't get it done, or get it done privately. The Swiss and French systems are the same, people there go to Hungary or Poland." So listen up, Nancy Pelosi, you should be careful what you wishes for.

Gdansk is so accessible. I've walked from one end to the other, visited six museums, and crammed my tiny brain with a zillion factoids that I'll soon forget. Then one factoid strikes you like a bolt of lightening summing up the tumultous history of this region. At the end of WW I, 90% of Gdansk was German and was accorded, under the Treaty of Versailles, an independent status subject to the control of the League of Nations. Other German areas in what was then Prussia came under control of Poland. Of course, this didn't please Hitler and became his justification for attacking Poland in 1939. And so it goes, the history in Europe, and the rest of the world, is one continuing saga of a religious or ethnic group retailiating for the real or purported disinfranchisement they've suffered under another group.

Lately, I've been liking the idea of being a roving anthropologist. It's a label that helps keep things in perspective. When I run into a disagreeable situation, like the extremely bad dinner of Pieroui, a type of dumpling, that tasted as bad as the rabbit I had in Barcelona (my family knows how bad that was) or my first night here, sleepless, due to church bells ringing on the hour and half hour, while revelers, on the street below, partied until four, and construction workers started jack hammering away at six, I just tell myself it's all part of my research as a roving anthropologist. As a roving anthropologist your research is not bound to this or that, the good or bad, but can extend to any aspect of human behavior. It's an idea that seems to suit my present situation quite well.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Tourist Destination

GDANSK, POLAND I liked Gdansk the moment I got off the train and looked up at the tall narrow facade and ornamented crests and reliefs of the train station. Throughout the city, the style is repeated over and over again in a colorful medley of renaisance curves and straight lines. Although the city buzzes with life, I kept looking up at the roof tops for that's where the architecture is at its finest; there it has no apparent utilitarian purpose other than to please the eye. Each unique structure becomes a brush stroke on the city's canvas, a living, breathing, masterpiece. I knew that Gdansk had been an important sea port, militarily strategic, and home to the solidarity trade union movement, but I had no idea it was such a stunningly beautiful city and so accessible - everything: museums, shops, restaurants, all within easy walking distance.

Hotel Krolewski
The city has not gone unnoticed. It's a prime destination for tourists inside and outside of Poland making finding a hotel room very dicey. I had to do a good deal of schlepping my bags around before I found a room in the middle of Old Town, but it was only for one night. The next morning I went through the process all over again - going to five hotels before snagging the last room at the Hotel Krolewski, the nicest three star hotel I've ever stayed in. The hotel, a converted grainery from the middle ages, spared during the Nazi blitzkrieg, sits directly on the canal across from Old Town, which is the view I'm lucky to have. The room is $78 including breakfast and free wifi. I was able to get a second night so I'll be here until Saturday.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

I Now Stand Corrected

Traveling Companion
GDANSK, POLAND Some times you get everything wrong. On a very slow "Express" train from Warsaw to Gdansk my traveling companion was an articulate young woman, a life time resident of Warsaw and a Buyer for Carlsberg Beer, who, after reading my last blog, insisted that it be amended to reflect the truth about Warsaw. Her vivacious smile, excellent English, had already destroyed my first impressions. "Okay," she said, "the city doesn't seem to come to life but this doesn't mean there isn't any life; clubs, cinima, restaurants, etc. And yes, some of the older people don't speak a foreign language but the young people do. Most learn English in school; four years in primary and another four in high school." She conceded a few minor points but was adamant that Polish people are very open and hospitable. So in the interest of checking my facts, I now stand corrected. On the US, where she had spent a few weeks, she said, "I don't like the food but the amusement parks, roller coasters, I like a lot." Interesting first impressions?

Did you know when traveling from country to country your browser automatically changes to the local language or more specifically to that of your current IP address. This isn't too much of a problem as the layout is the same, only the words are in a different language. What's frustrating though is that your spell check also changes to the local language. In writing this blog, the system thinks that I'm writing in Polish and everything I write is spelled wrong. Here's another quirk: I tried to download a Netflix movie, but the system noticed that my computer was in another country and told me, "No you can't do that." It's strange the way you don't have control over your own computer and the subscription services you've purchased. I wonder if it wouldn't be too much to ask the techno-wizards to give us back our computers.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Know How to Live

Palace of Culture and Science
WARSAW, POLAND A waitress who had attended college in Montreal told me, "I want to move back to Montreal where people know how to live. People don't know how to live here. It's so so boring." With 1.6 million people the sprawling city is everywhere but really nowhere. The Old Town, completely reconstructed after it was distroyed by the Nazis in 1944 in the aftermath of the Warsaw uprising, is a focal point for tourist, but I doubt the city's heart and soul. First impressions are never reliable. It would take me a long time to get to know what really makes this city tick. Indeed, it's Catholic and conservative - in Old Town, it seems, there's a church every few feet. But like the gloomy mist clinging to the church bell towers, you feel a heaviness in the air in which the old guard and social realism continue to dull the senses. Not nearly as stolid as in the 70s when I visited East Berlin and Prague, but there nonetheless. You see it in the manner and method with which people go about their daily tasks - expressionless and methodical - outside of Old Town, few, if any, speak English or German - an insularity insured by the vastness of the city. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that most have not been to a foreign country.

Monday, July 26, 2010

50 Million Years Old

VILNIUS, LITHUANIA Just about everywhere in Vilnius you can find Baltic amber jewelry. I learned something about this precious stone at a small museum around the corner from my hotel. Amber is a 50 million year old fossilized resin that comes in a variety forms representing the manner and place in which it originated. However, look out, it’s impossible to tell the fossilized stone from plastic. One test is to place the amber in a bowl of 10% salt water. If it floats, it's amber. If not, it's probably plastic. Or you can vigorously rub the stone on your shirt or pants. It’s the real McCoy if it smells like resin. Unfortunately, I’m not sure how one would actually do these tests when buying small pieces too small to smell and no salt water in sight. They say you can check the seller’s certificate of authentication, but who's to say if the certificate is authentic.

The one thing that has impressed me about the Baltic countries is their total embrace of the internet. Wherever I went I was able to find an open wifi connection, with what AT&T charges for roaming, this is a huge bonus. Last night in the comfort of my hotel room, I could Skype with Debra and Rachel. The sound and picture were outstanding and all for free - amazing! Also I've had excellent telephone reception, which makes texting an easy and inexpensive way of staying in touch. Isn't it odd that in our own backyard where these technologies were spawn, we have yet to realize their full benefit. SF, which promotes itself as a tourist Mecca and home to thousands of immigrants, would do well to adopt an open wifi system. In fact, if Obama wants to help the impoverished and stimulate the economy, I can think of no better way than to give the poor notebook computers and free wifi access. Imagine the boom in communication, education, and entrepreneurship. The panhandler on the street would have the same access to the world around him as the taxpaying rich. So who’s standing in the way: hotels, telephone, and cable companies? They all have their profit margins to protect but at the expense, I submit, of a smarter, healthier, more productive, and engaged society.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

A Country Not a Nation

VILNIUS, LITHUANIA After a day of trapsing around the Old Town, Gediminas Castle, St. Anne's Church, and the Cathedral-Basillica of St. Stanislaus (the incense in these places make me cough), it's nice to sit back, have a glass of wine, and enjoy the local culinary delights. Cedelinai, a combination pork and beef stuffed in a potatoe dumpling, covered in a crunchy white meat sauce and topped with sauer cream, is almost worth the price of the bus fare here. More fun though is meeting fellow travelers and sharing experiences. Like the articulate Ausie, who collects countries (145 so far) and advocates for AIDS victims around the world. When I noticed he was keeping a big fat diary, I asked him why he doesn't keep a blog so others could learn of his cause. His mouth dropped, "Now that's not a bad idea. I think I'll do that." A young German, attached to the German consulate in Minsk, explained why Belarus had fallen under the sway of the maniacal dictatorial powers of Alexander Lukashenko. "It's a country, unlike the Baltics, that had always been occupied and never experienced nationhood. They didn't know what to fight for," he told me. A Vilnian woman, with an American husband, relayed her experiences of living under collectivization and in one of those concrete block buildings. To which she added, "When the wall came down, I learned English, learned how to drive, and married an American!"

My time in the Baltics has been too short. I've learned of other places I should visit but the transportation system, without considerable hassle, doesn't allow it. For example, I'd like to go to Druskiminkai, Lithuania, which is on the Polish border, where you would think you could catch a train, or at least a bus, to Warsaw or Gdansk. Not so. There are no trains or buses that go to Poland except from Vilnius where you can either fly or take the bus to Warsaw but nowhere else in Poland. I thought of renting a car, or a driver, but the price is astronomical as there are no drop off points for cars taken out of Lithuania. The bus to Warsaw, is a possibility, but it takes nine hours, an unimaginably long time to be on a bus. So, after weighing my short list of options, I've decided to fly to Warsaw tomorrow. Of course, it's worth noting that it's only been 20 years since the Baltics have gained their independence. It may take them another 20 to develop the infrastructure and mindset to exploit the commercial benefits of their new found freedoms.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

You Can Kiss the Bride

Block Apartment Houses
VILNIUS, LITHUANIA By express bus it takes 4 hours to get to Vilnius, Lithuania. It costs $20. The boarding scene is one of total confusion. Although we're assigned seats, passengers, push and shove to get in front of the line, many are in the wrong line, cannot read their tickets, and must be redirected through hand language or some broken form of their native language to some other platform. The agent adds to the confusion by standing in the way of those who have checked in and are pressing to board. In the end, we all find our seats and the bus leaves on time. I remember living in Germany where line crashing was the norm although often there was no apparent advantage in doing so. The practice persists here and I wonder what compels people to be so rude. At least, in this regard, Americans are far politer. But Europeans protest, "Americas are only friendly on the surface. We Europeans know how to establish true friendships." I have yet to meet a European who doesn't feel this way but I don't believe it and wonder if there's been study done on this.

The trip from Riga to Vilnius is through rich farm land with large fields of wheat or barley. It looks like southern Minnesota, but without the corn, large farm houses, barns, or silos - only an occasional small home or cluster of homes. On the outskirts of Vilnius, we encountered the large and very ugly run down, soviet era, concrete block apartment buildings. As the Soviets collectivized the farms, the occupants of the large farms were sent to Siberia while the rest were forced to live in these dwellings - only so many square meters per family - all in the interest of equality - you understand.

Bachelorette Party
600,000 of the 3.3 million Lithuanians live in Vilnius, 88% are actually Lithuanian, and their currency is the Lita. One dollar will get you 2.4 Lita. Prices are higher and the standard of living lower than in Tallinn or Riga. The Old Town doesn't have the vitality that Tallinn or Riga had although there are a lot of weddings and hence bachelor and bachelorette parties. I guess it's something  done in other parts of Europe, but I found it unusual and amusing; groups of anywhere from four to a dozen young ladies roaming the streets. One of the group, the bride to be, would be dressed in some weird white outfit, often covered with candy and the rest would be dressed in black or red, acting like little devils. For a small donation you can kiss the bride or select a piece of candy from her dress.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Gastronomic Delights

RIGA, LATVIA The bus ride from Parnu to Riga takes about 2 1//2 hours, the sceney is more appealing with lakes, low hills, and forests reminiscent of northern Minnesota. Almost half of the 2.2 million people in Latvia, live in Riga, about a third of them are Russian. Riga, a modern cosmopolitan city, has retained its cultural roots in the form of its Old Town - not as medieval as Tallinn - but perhaps a bit more open and inviting. Two superb bands, in separate locations, played rock n' roll late into the night. The music, the warm weather, and late sunset (not until 11) had tourists and locals milling around, listening to the music, drinking beer, and enjoying themselves.

A dollar is worth 11 Estonia Kroon and only 1/2 of a Latvian Lat. Yet prices are about the same and standard of living comparable. The dollar gets you more than in the States but not much more. A modest hotel room with wifi and breakfast cost between $60 and $80. Taxis, trams, and buses are less expensive than in the States. The gastronomic delights are out of this world and reasonably priced. When I get back I must learn how to make blinis (the Russian pancake) and the Latvian potato pancake. Too bad I can't duplicate their beers.

Riga Old Town
Outside the hotel, I rented a bike for two hours for $6, more than enough time to explore Old Town and the immediate area. Locals don't ride bikes, they walk, especially the women, who enjoy strutting around showing off their finest, in high heals, on cobbled streets. Men aside, You see very few women dressed in "ordinary" jeans and those that do are probably tourists from the US, Germany, or England. I wonder if this is in reaction to the scarcity of goods and oppression they suffered under the Soviet Union.

In the center of Old Town is the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia 1940 - 1991, visited by dignitaries ranging from Laura Bush to Queen Elizabeth. It details the occupation and subjugation of the Lativan people by the Russians, then the Germans, and then the Russians again. It documents the complicity of many in Latvia who allowed the Russians, under the secret 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop agreement with Germany, to take control of their country, and later, their failure to defend their own Jewish citizenry as they were carted off and killed. Only 400 of the 70,000 Latvian Jews survived. The United States own complicity came in the 1945 Yalta agreement that conceded the Baltic countries to the Soviet Union in violation of the Atlantic agreement. A complicated history, with blame and guilt intermingled, the late history of Eastern Europe, of which the social and psychological scars still linger.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Wood Framed Homes

House in Parnu
PARNU, ESTONIA Aside from the hotel accommodations, which were pricey and substandard, I left Parnu with a favorable impression. I see why it's a popular summer vacation destination for people in this region and somewhat beyond. I didn't run into any Americans. Relaxed, laid back, with sprawling shaded parks, a beautiful beach, and a number of excellent, reasonably priced, restaurants. I had a "Heavy Russian Soup." That's what they called it - absolutely delicious. The breakfast buffet included local herring, lox, and tomatoes reminiscent of those grown in our garden as I was growing up. The Estonian wood framed homes, often abutting the sidewalks, are usually two or three stories high, painted in earthy tones of green, brown, grey, yellow, or orange, and built over a rock foundation with corrugated steel roofs, accented the appeal of Parnu as a vacation destination. You could buy a very nice home there for less than $500K.

I need to say something about the ubiquitous shopping mall. Wherever you go, from Parnu to Istanbul, from Kiev to Corfu, from St. Petersburg to St. Cloud, Minnesota, the shopping mall is the same; same lighting, air conditioning, glitzy display windows, young people loitering, moms schlepping kids, reluctant husbands coaxed by persistent wives into sparkling jewelry stores. Take a woman from St. Cloud, transport her into any mall the world over and she would find herself at home, "Look, Hun, pseud purses, 30% off." The shopping mall is the universal cultural melting pot, defining our tastes and values alike. How can global hostilities rage when we have so much in common? Maybe it's because too many think their mall is singularly unique and in need of defending or is it possible the mall and the global economy is just a side show, like the musac we listened to on the elevator up and has little to do with who we are.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Great Pizza

PARNU, ESTONIA I sweat my way through a two-hour Express bus ride to Parnu, it's on the way to Riga, where I thought I'd stop off for the night just because. Musing and actually feeling grateful that the thieves last night had not taken more and totally screwed me, I thought about the phalanx of rogues, thieves, and corporate profiteers, who's single goal is to take advantage of your venerability as a foreigner. At home, in the routine of our lives, this is seldom a problem. As a tourist, it's an everyday occurrence. This morning, in hopes of exchanging some of my remaining dollars for Kroon, a currency exchanger tried to convince me that 30% above the published rate was good. I didn't buy it and when I protested he balked at giving my money back. I had needed to exchange some cash because the night before, although I had explicitly told BofA that I needed to use the one card that had not been stolen, blocked the card anyway. I called them this morning and was advised through a recorded message to call back during working hours. I called back this evening and they told me the one good card I had on me had been cancelled and the two bad cards I had reported stolen had been left open. Can you believe it and so it goes. This all must be a test to see how I deal with adversity.

Great Pizza
The ride to Parnu is through undistinguished country-side, much like central Minnesota, except less developed. Very few farms and except for an occasional wheat, alpha, or hay field, the land lies wasted or wooded. The highway, initially a four-lane, quickly becomes a two-lane. The traffic is light, and so we're able to make good progress. Parnu, with a population of about 40,000, is a popular resort destination, for people living in this area. It has one main shopping street, a pedestrian walkway, that you can cover in ten minutes. It boasts a modern, architecturally aesthetic library, an opera house, a small modern art museum, and a sprawling white sandy beach. Intermingled among the elm shaded streets of Estonian homes are the occasional soviet era concrete block apartments. As I strolled the streets, I came across Steffani, which some say is the best restaurant in Estonia. It serves a mouth watering pizza unlike any you will have tasted before. Hotel rooms are hard to find, very expensive, quite tacky, and without air conditioning. Here like in Tallinn it's easy to find an open wifi connection.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

$1,500 Stolen

TALLINN, ESTONIA More sightseeing in Tallinn but I won't bore you with the details. You can easily go online and find out what Tallinn has to offer - it's a pretty nifty city. It's been six days and the pleasure of making this trip on my own is grabbing hold. Before I left, and as I occasionally meet people, I hear, in an astonished, upraised voice, "Your traveling alone?" This is usually followed by the raised eyebrow and, "Is there anything wrong?" I assume, referring to my marriage. In the short time it's been, it's been pretty much all positive. Not that I haven't enjoyed vacationing with Debra, Josh, and Rach, I love and miss them dearly, but here's the difference: no more negotiating over likes and dislikes. I'm free to go when and where I like. "But doesn't it get lonely?" someone will ask. Not so far, If I stay open, have a positive outlook, there seems to be someone around wanting to tell me about his country or another traveler eager to share his experiences. The bad news is, that without a companion, it's easier to make a bad decision.

Detectives at the Front Desk
I made one of those bad decisions when I brought $1,500 in cash only to come back to my room to find that it, along with two credit cards and some IDs, had been stolen. Although there's a video camera in the hallway, it didn't show anyone entering while I was out; but oddly the recording on the lock did show someone entering. The hotel called the police; a detective, translator, and two forensic specialists showed up and did a fare job of investigating the circumstances. Their conclusion was that I had left the door open. It needed to be squeezed shut, which is something the hotel management doesn't tell you. The detective told me thieves are accustomed to roaming the hallways checking doors to see if some one's stupid enough to leave theirs open. In my case, the thieves were at least kind enough to leave my computer, headphones, passport, and International Driver's License. They had zipped up my bags to make it appear as though nothing was amiss. The picture is of the investigator and translator talking to the hotel clerks.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Postcard Perfect

Old Town
TALLINN, ESTONIA The sun came out and the temperature rose to over 80 bringing an exhilarating vitality to this postcard perfect Baltic city of midieval churches, towers, and shops. Losing oneself in the maze of cobbled streets was both easy and fun. The people, who are either Russian or Estonian, for the most part speak enough English to be helpful in giving directions but on important matters, I found, it's always good to ask the same question of two people and if the answer comes out the same you're probably safe to act on it. Sites beyond the Old Town are easily accessible through a network of trams and buses. From Old Town, where my hotel is, ten minutes on the number one line (your choice is either one or two) will get you to Kadiorg palace and park lands, which was built by Peter the Great as a summer palace for Catherine. Taking the same line and then bus 8 gets you to Pirita, a sprawling white sand beach set within a large track of pine-forested parks. Obviously, I did a lot of walking but enjoyed it so much I've decided to delay my departure until Wednedsay. I'll stick with my hotel room which is small but virtually meets all my needs. For 54 Euro, I get a superb high-speed wifi connection and a scrumptious buffet breakfast that includes some of the tastiest lox you'll find anywhere.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Lived Here 35 Yrs Ago

Koselstrasse 18a
FRANKFURT, GERMANY My old apartment is on Koselstrasse, just off of Friedberger Landstrasse, an old neighborhood close to the middle of the city, now popular with young people and a number of new restaurants. Sandwiched between three or four buildings, the apartment, on the first floor of a three-story building, was then and is now dark and gloomy. I wanted to see what it looked like inside. I rang the outer bell and someone in the apartment buzzed me in. A disheveled middle-aged man came out and squinted at me suspiciously. In the background, a baby was crying and another child screaming, and through the door I could see toys and junk cluttering the floor, and a row of shirts hanging out to dry. "I lived here 35 years ago. May I look at your apartment?" His mouth dropped open in astonishment as he shook his head in disbelief. I retreated without pursuing the issue further.

Biggest mistake I've made so far has been renting car in Ffm. Except to get into the city, I never used it. With the streets turned into pedestrian ways and street parking restricted to residents, except for expensive garages, it's impossible to find a place to park. The underground, which they had only started to build 35 years ago, is extensive, clean, and efficient; however not cheap. A fare that would cost $1.50 in SF costs $3.50. I compounded my mistake of renting a car by going through Hotwire - the actual charge was much higher than what Hotwire had quoted because of the required German insurance and the application of an unfavorable exchange rate. It's a lesson I learned in renting hotels online, which is something I don't do anymore.

My flight to Tallinn was uneventful. Here in Tallinn though it's been raining cats and dogs reminiscent of the warm summer day thunderstorms growing up in Minnesota. Despite the constant downpour, I ventured out into the cobbled streets of Old Town looking for a uniquely Estonian restaurant (I think I'll try the local specialties whenever possible). The waiter at the Olde Hansa on Vana Turg around the corner recommended the brown bear and so I gave it a shot. It came in a rich dark gravy and crunchy cranberry sauce and looked and tasted like beef roast except much tougher. In addition to carrots, an apple pickle salad, and a cake which had a strong thyme taste, the bear was served with spelt, a crunchy grain from the barley family. I learned later that the bear came from Norway and the spelt from Egypt. The Merlot I had was from Chile and tasted of the dregs from the bottom of the barrel.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Renewed Friendship

Ward Carr and Family
FRANKFURT, GERMANY Sitting outside of the Apple Store in the rain, the only place I've been able to get an open wifi connection, I received an email from Ward Carr. Excitedly, I called him back. We stumbled all over each other trying to catch up on our past." If you don't mind," he said, "I can pick you up and we can chat while my son and I shop for a new bike." That was the beginning of a long day rich in conviviality, fascinating conversations, and a renewed friendship. I met Ward's wife, two of his three kids, and a couple of other friends of his who joined us along the way. Ward, I learned, is a jack of all trades, historian and author, coach and club sports organizer, and what surprised me most, an English language teacher. Yep, after 35 years, some of my former colleagues are still at it. He tells me teaching pays anywhere from 35 to 50 Euro per hour. Ward, with his incredible memory for details, regaled me with one story after another from our time together at Berlitz - a remarkable day.

Armpit of Europe

Julius and Doerte Neubronner
FRANKFURT, GERMANY Gorgeous day in Ffm - temperature in the low 90s - too much to report - I'll have to be selective. I called Julius and Doerte Neubronner just as they were about to leave their house. They abruptly changed their plans so we could be together for the day. Ernst came to the hotel, we had lunch, and took an extended walking tour through the sites, sounds, and smells of the city I once called home. Ffm is not the same city. Then it was one big constuction site as 90% of it had been destroyed in the war. Back then we referred to it as the armpit of Europe. A month ago Mercer rated it as one of the top ten "most liveable cities" in the world, a distinction with which I would certainly disagree, but admittedly, the city has come a long ways.

IG Farben Building
One of our stops was at the former IG Farben building, now part of a modern sprawling Johann Wolfgang Goethe Universitat campus. It was here in 1972, the building had become the Eisenhower headquarters for the European theater, I came face to face with terrorism - the Baader Meinhof gang set off a bomb that killed an officer and wounded thirteen others. An excellent movie that tells the story of this deranged anarchist group is "Baader Meinhof Coomplex." Other than a spruced up facade the building and its surroundings have not changed. The ghosts of its troubled history, I'm sure, continue to haunt its halls. During the war IG Farben used slave labor to manufacture the gas that killed the jews.

We took the tram out to Bad Homburg where the Neubronners live. What is so remarkable and in such contrast to my own experience is nothing, absolutely nothing, had changed in 35 years. Yes, they're older, they have five grandchildren - one who's turned 24, but other than that, it was deja vu 1975. We talked non-stop, mauling over every aspect of our lives - extending through a late dinner out. We spoke only German and by the end of the night I felt as though my brain was fried and had to force myself to squeeze out the simplest of German expressions. Nevertheless, it was a perfectly wonderful day.

Friday, July 16, 2010

You'll Have to Call AT&T

FRANKFURT, GERMANY I made the flight with my two carry-ons and had the fortune of sitting next to a retired German couple, Igon and Marlies, who were returning from vacationing 1 1/2 months in the states. It was great fun talking with them in German, our language of choice, suggesting that I had made progress during the last few months in improving meine Sprachkenntnis. We talked most of the flight through. They had seen the German movie, Cherry Blossoms, and, like me, were taken by how the movie's theme resonated with their own experiences as aging parents. I mentioned Robert De Niro's movie, Everybody's Fine, which they had planned to see, and how strikingly similar the two movies were - for empty-nesters, over 65, two excellent movies, rich in comparisons.

iPhone Kaput
Tough news on the technology front – arriving in Ffm I found I had no phone service or internet connection. In theory, the airport has free wifi but for some reason I wasn’t able to connect with my notepad. My lack of service on my iPhone landed me at the newly opened Apple store, where after several hours of waiting, diagnosing, and considering options, they gave me a new iPhone, which sadly resulted in the loss of all my settings and data. I tried the new iPhone and, “oooh,” it showed no service. The Apple “Genius” responded, “Sorry, but there’s nothing I can do. You’ll have to call AT&T.” I found a hotel and learned that a call from there would cost me 2.50 Euro per minute. To make a long story short, after a lot of running around, I finally reached AT&T and found that they had screwed up when they set up my international calling features. What I’m left with now is a functioning phone but with none of my data and settings. It also has a skitzophrenic dual language personality - sometimes it likes to be German and other times quite happy being American. Meantime I still haven’t figured what’s with this wifi stuff.

Back tracking, my search for a hotel was too much of a challenge. My criteria were: reasonably priced, air conditioned, wifi connected, with parking and a telephone. Sounds simple enough, uh, uh, I went to six hotels; three of them had no air conditioning (it’s hot here) and three had no wifi. "Momentarily down they would say." In the end I settled for one that I thought had everything but only later found out that the phone in the room didn’t work nor did its wifi. The room is comfortable though and has a good air conditioning system. The search for a hotel, resolving my iPhone problems, and trying get a wifi connection took me well into the evening – exhausted.

Before I forget, I should mention, before I left SF, I heard from Dave Meaney. He and Inge are doing fine - still living and working in Frankfurt. Unfortunately, they are out of town, but I'm thinking maybe I can stop off in Ffm on my way to Cologne in August and connect with them then. He wrote me that Ward Carr, a mutual friend back then and teacher at Berlitz, is also still living in Ffm. Great if I could see Ward, but I'll have to wait until I hear from Dave with his contact information.

I also decided to leave Ffm on Sunday and fly direct to Tallinn and then work my way back to Poland. Getting around in the Baltic countries might be somewhat problematic; train service appears to be virtually non-existent and car rentals expensive. The cheapest I could find so far is $84/Day. Bus seems to be the transportation of choice and, "Gott sei Dank," quite inexpensive. I'll see what Tallinn has to offer and then perhaps on to Riga, Latvia.

The Euro is climbing. When I left, it was at 1.28 and at SFO, they were exhanging it at 1.46 - what a rachet! I was hoping I could get a better rate in Ffm but it's the same. Frau Merkel through budget cutbacks is determined to stabilize the Euro as she is convinced that a stable Euro is essential to Germany's economy. Quite a contrast with the Obama administration, and the likes of Paul Krugman, who must be the most ill-deserved Nobel prize winner ever, who are convinced we can spend our way out of this crisis. The top U.S. tax rate is now at 35%. With a California top rate of over 11%, we now have the honor of having a higher tax rate than Germany, but who is radically cutting back on their spending while continuing to maintain a first-class health and welfare system. But if our government can find just a few more earmarks to throw money at, we should do just fine - huh?

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Paul McCartney

SAN FRANCISCO, CA Debra tells me you gotta have a proper send off so this weekend we indulged ourselves attending "Peter Pan in the Round" at the Embarcadero Center and the Paul McCartney at AT&T Park. "Peter Pan" was very well done, but not quite as thrilling as when our son, Josh, played Peter in the 8th grade - some proud memories.

Paul McCartney
Debra had been wanting to get tickets for McCartney, but kept putting it off. AT&T Park is right across the street from our pied-à-terre in the City where scalped tickets are sold all the time. It's illegal, but the police look the other way. Debra decided to try her hand at negotiating some tickets for us. As she stepped out of our apartment, she ran into Sir Paul's caravan and was quick to snap the pic below from her iPhone. That got her juices going - she just had to get tickets, which wasn't a problem, as there were plenty of scalpers hanging around. Through some hard negotiations, she got us two $100 tickets for $200 a piece - such a deal!

Two hours later we were joining the throngs entering the park. The attendant scanned Debra's ticket and she zipped through the turnstile. "Something wrong with your ticket?" The attendant muttered to me. "You need to go to the ticket window and get it checked." I did and it was counterfeit- ugh!!! I called Debra, "Go on in. I'll go back to the apartment." I actually I moped around a bit feeling sorry for myself. Debra was feeling bad too, but then she remembered that she had the scalper's telephone number. I called the scoundrel and a shouting match, with lots of expletives, ensued. He finally calmed down and so did I, when it sunk in, that I had his number, and was not a stranger to the area. We decided to meet and he agreed to find me a replacement ticket. For the next 1 1/2 hours I was introduced to the shady business of scalping as the scoundrel worked his contacts within the cabal of street vendors. He had tickets but they were too good and he wanted to get me a cheap replacement ticket. I was beyond protesting and actually intrigued by the extraordinary lengths he was prepared to go to find me just the right "cheap" ticket.

It was 8:30 and Mc had just come on stage, when my buddy Vern (yep, by this time we were buddies - first name basis and all) pulls a crumpled ticket out of his pocket and exclaims, "I got your ticket! I'll walk you to the turnstile to make sure you get in." I got in alright, but only then noticed that the ticket was for a "limited view" seat. Indeed the view was horrible. I didn't bother sitting down - instead found an open seat several sections away - with a view comparable to what Debra had initially bought. Meantime, Debra had learned that the ticket she had was for a seat sold to someone else but because her counterfeit ticket scanned, and the attendant couldn't tell if it was counterfeit, she was relocated to a seat on the main field. 

So there we were sitting in two parts of the park, texting each other throughout, and enjoying one of the most fabulous concerts we've ever seen - the Vern incident and Sir Paul - a totally priceless experience and a proper send off.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Packing Up

I wrote Nick, I'm taking only a carry-on (European carry-on allowance is a couple of inches shorter) and a small duffle bag. Nick wrote back "I will, of course, show up in Belgrade with six or seven large suitcases and a steamer trunk.  I assume porters will be on hand to assist me." He's kidding, of course, but maybe not. We vacationed in NZ two years ago he showed up with a full wardrobe - ready for every occasion. Debra choked when I told her I was only taking a couple of carry-ons. When you only bring one pair of shoes that can double as beach sandals, no hair dryer, of course, but lots of underwear (hmm, maybe I could do without the underwear), t-shirts, and light short sleeve shirts, it's surprising how much you can pack. The airlines are getting fussier  about what's allowed so it remains to be seen whether my two small bags will be within their limits.

More thoughts on communications: Skype seems to be the way to go if you can find a good wifi connection, then the calls, video conferencing, text messaging are free when calling another Skype user. I can also call non-Skype numbers for a minimal charge. I have Skype installed on my iPhone and notebook computer. The next cheapest way to communicate, as an AT&T subscriber, is text messaging. For $10/Mo you get 50 text messages. Incoming text messages from the U.S. are free otherwise they're charged against your 50-message allowance. If you can get a wifi connection, the third way to communicate is through emails - it's free. Beyond these options, it gets quite expensive. An international calling plan for $5.99/Mo only marginally reduces the price of making and receiving calls from $.99 to $2.29 depending on the country. I'm getting a data roaming plan for the iPhone so I can access information over the internet - especially Google Maps. This is going to cost $199/Mo. for 200 megabits. One Google Maps search can eat up 8 megabits, ugh!

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Trip Planning

I'm ambivalent about doing this blog and all the other technology that allow me to stay connected 24/7. Yesterday Debra and I got a call from Rachel, who's doing Summer volunteer work in Honduras. She called us using Skype, which cost her nothing and her voice came through so clearly over the computer that Chewy (our dog) went crazy thinking she was in the same room with us. Although we couldn't see her because her computer didn't have a built-in camera, she could see us and Debra could even show her work she had done on her computer. So equipped with Skype, iPhone, and a Notepad, I have everything needed to stay connected, but does this make sense? Can I really get into the Europe scene, let it take me where it will, if I'm constantly reporting back - expectations controlling my every movement? "Well, what do you plan to do today?" I hear coming out of every corner of the technology.

I Have a Plan
I have a plan. Yes, one needs some sort of plan but in communicating it, well that's another matter - too many expectations. I fear a sort of  self-imposed rigor mortis will zap the life out of an otherwise mind-bending adventure. Okay, here it is, but other than a few hard dates, don't hold me to it. First the hard dates: I leave on July 14 and return October 12. Debra and Rachel are producing a press event for Electronic Arts in Cologne in August. I'll be with them August 17 - 19.  I'm meeting my friend, Nick, in Belgrade on September 6 and Debra in Athens on September 26. Debra and I will spend the last two weeks on the sun drenched Greek islands of Mykonos, Santorini, and Paros.

Here's the whole shebang:
  • July 14
    • San Francisco (Fly 11 Hours)
  • July 15
    • Frankfurt, German (Train 8.0 Hours
    • Sylt, Germany (Train 4.0 Hours)
    • Kiel, Germany (Train 6.0 Hours)
  • July 23
    • Szczecin, Poland (Train 3.0 Hours)
    • Schlawe, Poland (Bus 2.0 Hours
    • Nacmierz, Schlawe, Poland (Bus 2.0 Hour)
    • Schlawe, Poland (Train 2.5 Hours)
    • Gdansk, Poland (Train 4.5 Hours)
    • Warsaw, Poland (Fly 2.0 Hours)
    • Tallinn, Estonia (Drive 4.5 Hours)
    • Riga, Latvia (Drive 3.5 hours)
    • Vilnius, Lithuania (Drive 7.0)
  • August 9
    • Warsaw, Poland (Train 3.0 Hours )
    • Krakow, Poland (Train 6.0 Hours)
    • Presov, Slovakia (Train 5.5 Hours
    • Bratislava, Slovakia (Train 2.5 Hours)
    • Budapest, Hungary (Train 3.0 Hours) 
    • Vienna, Austria (Fly 2.0 Hours)
    • Cologne, Germany (Fly 2.0 Hours)
    • Vienna, Austria (Train 6.0 Hours)
  • August 21
    • Ljubljana, Slovenia (Train 2.5 Hours)
    • Zagreb, Croatia (Train 5.0 Hours)
    • Rijeka, Croatia (Ferry 8.5 Hours)
    • Split, Croatia (Bus 4.5 Hours)
    • Dubrovnik, Croatia (Drive 2 Hours)
    • Podgorica, Montenegro (Train 6 Hours)
    • Sofia, Bulgaria (Train 5 Hours)
  • September 6
    • Belgrade, Serbia (Train 3.0 Hours) Nick arrives 1:21 PM LH 3407
    • Timisoara, Romania (Train 5 Hours)
    • Craiova, Romania (Train 3.0 Hours)
    • Bucharest, Romania (Train 2.5 Hours)
  • September 10
    • Ruse, Romania (Train 4.0 Hours)
    • Varna, Bulgaria (Train 2.0 Hours)
    • Burgas, Bulgaria (Train 3.0 Hours)
    • Stara Zagora, Bulgaria (Train 4.5 Hours)
    • Sofia, Bulgaria (Bus 5 Hours)
  • September 21
    • Skopje, Macedonia (Train 4.5 Hours) Nick leaves for Belgrad
    • Thessaloniki, Greece (Train 5.0 Hours)
  • September 26 Debra arrives
    • Athens, Greece (Ferry 4.0 Hours)
    • Mykonos, Greek Island (Drive ? Hours)
    • Santorini, Greek Island (Drive ? Hours)
    • Paros, Greek Island (Ferry 4.0 Hours)
  • October 12
    • Athens, Greece (Fly 3.0 Hours)
    • Frankfurt, Germany (Fly 11.5 Hours)
    • San Francisco 

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Getting Started - Part I

SAN FRANCISCO, CA I've named this blog "Tallinn to Varna." It will cover my observations, reflections, and experiences as I travel across the East European countries - mostly places I've never been before. I leave on the 14th of July and arrive in Frankfurt around 10 on the 15th. I'm thinking of staying in Frankfurt for four days. 35 years ago I lived in Ffm for 3 1/2 years and perhaps can connect with some of the people I knew back then.

There's Ernst and Dörte Neubronner. I tracked them down through the internet. They still live in Bad Homburg - same address. Ernst was an economist and a pupil of mine at BHF Bank. 25 years ago they put me up for a night when I stopped over in Ffm after returning from a ski trip to Zermatt. Very nice people. I remember teaching them Scrabble, which isn't a game as well suited to the German language as it is to English because of the plethora of ways you can build words in German. With all the possibilities, it's just not as challenging.

Klaus Subjetzki
Maybe I can find Herr Subjetzki, my former patron, a pupil, and one of the partners at BHF Bank. By introducing me to other banking executives, he helped me establish a language school for bankers. I had over 100 pupils at BHF Bank alone. After moving back to Minneapolis, Subjetzki, on a business trip to the States, called me. I knew he loved hunting and fishing so early the next morning after he called I took him fishing on Lake Minnetonka. I caught a walleye, but let him reel it in. He was thrilled and I got him back for his 10 am meeting with First Bank System. Sadly, in googling him, I found only a short three paragraph obituary headed "Klaus Subjetzki ist Tot." He died suddenly in 2001 with no apparent explanation as to the cause. He had left BHF Bank in the late 70s and become the Chairman of the Board of Schering AG, a billion dollar pharmaceutical company.

Dave Meaney
Dave and Inge Meaney - it would be neat to see them. I met Dave, not long after I arrived in Ffm. He and I taught English at Berlitz, but Dave's love was in playing the guitar and singing Irish ballads. He's apparently still doing it. He has a website: Both he and Inge live in the same apartment. Through his website I sent him an email asking him if he'd like to get together for a beer, but I haven't as yet heard back from him - perhaps he's not so interested in rehashing those good old times at Berlitz.

Hermann and Susanne Pilz - spent a lot of time with them – including a vacation in Corsica. Hermann was a student of mine and a tax attorney at BHF Bank. Suzanne taught English at a German Gymnasium. Unfortunately, I can't find anything on them. There's a nice online telephone directory for Germany, but that search proved futile as well.