Sunday, September 20, 2015

Reflections on our trip to Central Europe

It's been four days since we got home from our trip to Central Europe. I'm over my jet lag; that means I am sleeping until 7:00 a.m. as usual, and going to bed at my regular time, and my energy level is back to normal.

Here are some of my learnings from our trip to Central Europe:
  • If you're visiting seven countries and have five currencies, this technique works pretty well: when you're done with a currency, you stop at a gas station market near the border and spend all the coins you can. Once you're across the border, you go to a bank and trade the currency bills from the prior country for bills from the current country. Ice cream bars, drinks, and cookies are good things to spend the coins on. 
  • If you're visiting seven countries and a different language is spoken in each of them, learning "thank you" in each language is really hard, especially if the various versions of the word are pretty close. 
  • You are very grateful that in all eight countries you visit, you can find people who speak English.
  • It's easy to get all churched out or all architectured out, but the history of a place is always interesting.
  • Being on the water is a special pleasure, whether at night on the Danube or in the afternoon traveling to your island hotel.
  • You need to pay close attention to your feet when you're walking on cobblestones.
  • Public transportation is a fabulous thing in cities.
  • If you wash your clothes in the sink in your room they take at least 36 hours to dry in the room but only about 24 if you hang them outside in a corner of the balcony. Or you might decide to take the subway, with a transfer, to get to a laundromat. Or you might walk a mile to get to one. 
  • Pictures taken with an iPhone are just as good as those taken with an actual camera.
  • Your iPhone is limited if you don't have international service or wifi or battery life. Usually you can find someone close by who is willing to help you out.
  • If you walk five to seven miles a day, you can eat gelato for lunch and whatever you want for dinner and still fit into your clothes.
  • It's better when you don't have to share a seat on the bus.
  • Some people in your tour group are more interesting than others.
  • There is no greater asset than an outstanding tour guide.
  • You can usually squeeze into even the tiniest shower, but if you bend over to pick up the soap you dropped, you may shut off the faucet with your butt.
  • If you sleep with the windows open, you get to enjoy the noises of the night.
  • It is good to skip a group event every now and then to have some alone time. 
  • You get a better understanding of a refugee crisis if you walk among refugees in a train station.
  • Gypsy children are beautiful.
  • Once you've traveled to a place, and you read about it in the news, you can see something beautiful about it in your mind.
  • You return home grateful for a roof over your head and enough to eat.
  • You are especially grateful for the lessons and surprises of travel.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

At the Salzburg train station: what happened to us

We'd planned on a relaxing seven-hour train ride from Lake Bled, Slovenia to Munich, Germany on Tuesday, flying home the next day. I was impressed by the quiet train and comfortable second-class seating, and awed by the Austrian scenery.

After six hours the train arrived at Salzburg, announcements were made in German, and most people got off. A man passing us said, "Everyone has to get off. This train has been canceled. There are refugees on the track ahead and Germany has closed the border."

We got off the train and descended the escalator to the station. It was full of refugees and immigrants.

Police stood at the edges of the crowd, but everything seemed calm and nonthreatening. We threaded our way through the mass of people and looked at the departures board. The only train to Munchen (Munich) was the one we had just gotten off, and the description said "canceled".

My vacation-tired brain kicked into emergency mode as I considered our immediate concerns: (1) find a way to Munich; (2) find a way to let our Munich hotel know we'd try to get there but might be late; and  (3) figure out what we should do about our next-day scheduled flight home. In the back of my mind was (4) find a hotel in Salzburg. The concerns were clear but the obstacles to solutions were (1) I couldn't read or speak German and I didn't know where the cities on the departure board were in relation to alternative trains; (2) my phone didn't have international service and there was no wifi in the Salzburg train station.

Then I saw a tall, rangy man speaking to a train security person. I moved toward them. When the conversation ended, the man nodded. I said, "Do you speak English?" He said yes. "What did the man say?" "He said there may not be any more trains going to Munich tonight, but there might be one going to Freilassing. It's just across the border from Salzburg, and from there it wouldn't be a problem to find a way to Munich. If you see a train listed on the board, get to the platform fast, as there will be many others with the same idea." We introduced ourselves; his name was Stefan. We looked at the board. There was a train scheduled to depart for Freilassing in 15 minutes on track 4. I gestured to Art and the three of us made our way across the crowded station to the escalator.

When we got to track 4 I saw the destination sign "Freilassing". Well, I thought to myself, that was easy.

A minute later I looked at the sign. Freilassing was no longer the destination. Stefan and I looked at each other. He said, "I guess that train has been canceled." Down another escalator for another hopeful look at the board. Nothing else was going to Munich.

I looked at my useless iPhone. When I glanced up, a fellow nearby was talking on his phone. I approached him and introduced myself. His name was Phillip and he was Irish. He offered to connect my phone to his by way of his hotspot. I was very grateful! I introduced Phillip to Stefan and they struck up a conversation while I sent a quick email to the Munich hotel to explain our situation. I said we'd try to make it but might be late. Also had time for a Facebook post: "Stranded at train station in Salzburg. Border to Germany closed. Many refugees. Talking to a German who translated and an Irishman with a hotspot."

Phillip told Stefan and me there was a bus leaving the Salzburg station for Munich in 45 minutes. "But can it get across the border by road?" No one knew. I thought it would be better to stay at the train station, where food could be purchased, rather than risking sitting on a detained bus at the border. I get hypoglycemic when I don't eat often enough; I'd already bought two sandwiches and two bottled drinks at a shop in the station just in case. There was only the one shop I could see, and there were many people in that station.

Twenty minutes later "Freilassing" appeared again on the departures board, this time on track 1. We ran to the platform. Again, minutes later the sign changed.

Stefan excused himself, made a phone call, and returned to join us. "I have a friend who lives south of here, near the Alps. He's coming for me and I'll be spending the night with him." I thanked him for his translation services and said I'd pay his kindness forward. Then he left.

Phillip and Art and I discussed our options. We decided to take the bus option, but just for the heck of it, to ask about possible trains at the information booth. Again we crossed the station. This time I stopped, twice, to put my hand on the arm of a refugee woman and say, "Good luck." Both of them said thank you.

My heart sank when I saw the woman behind the counter. Her face was expressionless as I asked my question: "Can we get to Munich from here?" She looked at her computer monitor and nodded, then tapped a few keys and printed out an itinerary:
  • Saltzburg Hbf - Schwarzach-St. Veit
  • Schwarzach-St. Veit - Worgl Hbf
  • Worgl Hbf - Munchen Hbf
None of this made any sense to me except that it was a train with two transfers. From the times listed, it looked like a four-hour journey, not counting time waiting between trains. And what if we got all the way to Worgl and couldn't cross the border there? Still.

As we made our way to the platform, I noticed the wide staircase inside the station was now crowded with a shouting throng of immigrants. For some reason this didn't bother me. I hoped the shouting wouldn't lead to anything further. I don't think it did.

We'd come from Lake Bled in the south. Our destination was Munich via Salzburg. How we actually got there was Lake Bled to Salzburg, then back south to Zellam See and west to Worgl to Munich. 

When we got to Worgl, we had a 45-minute wait for the next train to Munich. We found a cafe two blocks from the train station and wolfed down a noodle and chicken concoction. Once we'd boarded the train, an announcement came on in German. A woman was listening. I asked her if she spoke English. She said yes. I introduced myself. Her name was Katharina. She said, "They're going to search the train." 

The police came on board. They removed eight people from our car who had no identification papers: one entire family and a student who hadn't brought their passport along. Then the train began its final journey.

Katharina did me another kindness. She called the Munich hotel and told them we'd be arriving around midnight. She advised us to get off the train at the east Munich station rather than the central one. When the train arrived in Munich, I waved goodbye to Phillip. Katharina stayed with us until we got to the correct platform. I gave her a hug and said I would pay her helpfulness forward.

The hotelier had stayed awake to let us in!

So I've got some kindnesses to do in the next few days, to thank Stefan and Phillip and Katharina. It will be a pleasure to do this paying forward.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Where are we, really? And who are these people?

We're nearing the end of our journey. We've had a couple of days to relax - first in Rovinj in Croatia at a lovely island hotel.

Now at Lake Bled in Slovenia, on a pouring-down-rain day.

The description of our Best of Eastern Europe in 16 Days says we'd be visiting the Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia and Slovenia. Twenty-five years ago, the same travel territory would have been Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary and Yugoslavia. What's the difference?

Our tour guide Katharina is Czech. When she was born in 1975 Czechoslovakia was one of the Communist bloc countries. She remembers the limitations of that time; for example, she said if you saw a line in front of a shop you would stand in the line, and when you got to the front you'd find out what the place was selling! Travel outside the country was very difficult; she suspected her father was on a blacklist since he had been part of the protests of the late 60s. But, she said, for some people communism was okay because everyone had what they needed.

Katharina is still Czech, but now her country is the Czech Republic. In 1993 Czechoslovakia split peacefully into the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

Our driver, Sam, is Slovenian. When he was born in 1985 his country was Yugoslovia. In the 1990s, after the death of Tito (Josip Broz) in 1980 and the end of the USSR in 1989, the territories of Yugoslavia - which had been established after World War II based on ethnic and historical lines - had a bloody war as part of their separation into Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia. On our drive through Croatia, we could see many houses pockmarked by bullet holes from that recent conflict.

So four countries are now eight. All of them have Slavic populations (as does Poland, which we also visited). These tribes migrated from the Urals in about the ninth century. Their languages and cultures are similar but not identical.

Hungary was the only non-Slavic country we visited. Its people descend from the Magyar tribes which, it is believed, originated in Central Asian in the area now known as Soviet Turkestan.

I was in our room this morning when our housekeeper arrived. We chatted for a few minutes in my only language: English. She speaks five languages. I said I wish I spoke more than one. She said, "We are small countries."

I think about the five Slavic countries we visited. All have had a fractured history, being overrun throughout the centuries by aggressive empires and nations. Their borders have changed - and sometimes disappeared. Yet the citizens of each of these countries are loyal to their own place. Or is it their own tribe, their own people?

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Plitvice National Park in Croatia - a walk in the woods

My words wouldn't do justice to this beautiful place. As Rick Steves says in his Eastern Europe guidebook, "Plitvice is one of Europe's most spectacular natural wonders. Imagine Niagara Falls diced and sprinkled over a heavily forested Grand Canyon. There's nothing like this lush valley of 16 terraced lakes, laced together by waterfalls, boat rides, and miles of pleasant plant walks. Countless cascades and water that's both strangely clear and full of vibrant colors make this park a misty natural wonderland."

My iPhone 6 camera is a wondrous recorder:

Six miles walked today. So worth it!

Saturday, September 12, 2015

The story at the Budapest train station: what I know

We heard about a refugee crisis at the train station in Budapest when we were still in Poland. The thought crossed my mind that our planned visit to Budapest might be changed, but Katka, our tour guide, didn't say a word other than "We will be fine."

The news swirled around us for the next few days. Some of our travel companions were keeping a close eye on the Budapest story, so I heard their thoughts but didn't explore the situation much myself. One of the travelers, Tom, has a passion for visiting train stations - seems his dad used to take him on outings to train stations, so he has rich memories of such experiences - and he visited the Keleti train station twice during our stay in Budapest. He saw firsthand what was going on there, though it had been several days since the height of the crisis. I thought about going myself, but when I looked at my motives I realized I had more of a voyeur attitude than a humanitarian one, so I'll content myself with a few of Tom's pictures.

On Wednesday, September 9 - five days after the height of the crisis - Art and I attended a 12-step meeting at a church in Budapest. This is what we saw just before we went upstairs to the meeting room:

The minister of the church asked us not to take pictures of this room or to identify the name of the church, which has been a refuge for over 70 years. The room was awaiting the arrival of women and children who needed a place to sleep. The minister believed that Hungary was getting a raw deal from the press, when the country was simply trying to do its job to take care of the paperwork for the arriving crowds. His concern was that the media would identify the church and swarm the place as part of the continuing drama, or that men would begin to arrive looking for a place to stay. Usually I don't take pictures when asked not to, but I decided instead not to identify the name of the church.  

There's a plaque on the wall of the room - I took a picture of it but, again, am not going to identify the name of the woman honored by it. She was Scottish, and in the early 1940s she was headmistress at this place, which housed Jewish refugee girls. In 1943 the Gestapo came and took her away for harboring Jews. She was sent to Auschwitz, where she died.

I read a story in the online version of Time that provides a good summary of what transpired in the early days of the crisis. You can read about it here.

Katka, our tour guide, had these pieces to add, based on Facebook conversations with Czech friends of hers who had traveled to Budapest to help:
  • When people enter the EU from outside, the first country they enter is required to check their papers. Hungary was trying to do that. Some people coming in did not realize they had to have papers. Some had left papers behind when they fled their country. Some spoke only Arabic and could not communicate at the Budapest train station. Some had never traveled or lived in a multicultural community.
  • Many people at the train station were refugees, but others were people coming in to look for work in the EU. Officials had a hard time determining who the refugees were.
  • European countries were not ready for the large influx of people from outside. Some Europeans were worried that immigrants would take their jobs. 
  • Germany opened its arms to the immigrants, so many of the people at the train station were trying to get to Germany. Then Germany changed its mind somewhat. EU countries disagreed on who should take how many refugees.
  • Western EU members wanted the Central European members to take more people but there was some resistance. When these countries joined the EU in 2005, they were not allowed to go elsewhere in the EU to work for five years - so why, now, should they take in new people? Besides, the refugees had heard about Germany and Austria's willingness to take them in, so they weren't much interested in going to the central countries instead.
  • Many individuals wanted to help out. People came in their cars from as far away as Norway to pick up families and take them in. 
  • People still at the train station may not have money to go on or may be too tired or sick. The Red Cross is helping with the issue.
At our 12-step meeting, one man was Brazilian, with a dark complexion. He said he had been at the train station, and the aid people there had thought he was from Syria and had offered him food!

I have a few thoughts based on this experience:
  • The "us" versus "other" concept applies to immigration issues - whether in Europe with this latest influx of refugees and immigrants, or in the US. People are uncomfortable with other ethnicities joining their communities unless they have experience in a multicultural environment.
  • "They may take our jobs" is a common fear.
  • Governments may be unequipped to deal with a sudden influx of people, whether at a train station in Hungary during a war or at a sports stadium in New Orleans after a hurricane. We talk about crisis, but we may be ill equipped to deal with what actually happens. The actions of individuals may be just as effective. We can't expect government to have all the answers.
  • The EU is a mixed blessing for its members.
I am so grateful to be learning so much about this part of the world. For me, that's part of the appeal of travel.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Walking seven miles in Budapest

I wear a Fitbit so I know that's how many miles I walked yesterday. In three phases.

1. Morning tour of Pest, the modern-in-comparison city across the Danube River from Buda, the medieval one. We use public transportation wherever possible on this tour, so we took the Metro - blue and yellow lines - to get to our first stop. 

The guided tour was mostly public and historical buildings and parks. At this point I am all building'd out, but at least I can say I was there. I took a couple dozen pictures but only kept the ones not of buildings!

You can rent a bike and return it to any other bike stand in the city. I'd like to try this sometime, but the traffic in Budapest is a little heavy for my comfort. There are dedicated bike lanes, though - nice and wide - and we were encouraged to stay out of them on our walks.

Our guides encouraged us to visit the public baths, which are very clean and popular with the locals. They even took us inside the building so we could peek out and see how everything looked. I am not going! 

This fountain in Freedom Square has special tiles all around it, and when you step on one the water by it turns off and that part of the fountain recedes. We played in this water! Several of us commented on what this formal but playful fountain might signify. My thought was that, if you're inside the water, you feel trapped, but all you have to do is walk toward the water and it opens up for you. You can get out if you make the effort and trust the process.

This is us, at least half the time. Standing, standing.

Our guided tour ended at the Budapest Central Market, an enormous place where you can buy everything from fresh fruits and vegetables and meat, to clothing and dry goods, to souvenirs. For lunch we consumed our most decadent, sinful, calorie-laden meal. Langos is Hungarian fried bread - kind of like an elephant ear, but not deep fat fried, and shaped like a an eight-inch pizza crust. Mine had a layer of vanilla cream, laden with fresh strawberries and bananas, topped with crushed walnuts and a drizzle of chocolate. It was glorious! I got the concoction all over myself - hands, face, and shirt - and knew I could finish it with great effort but decided not to because I'm sure the part I ate contained at least 5,000 calories. A once-in-a-lifetime indulgence!

2.  Trip to the laundromat. This required a short walk and two Metro trains. At our stop we saw the Budapest Opera House. We took these pictures for an opera-going friend of mine in Seattle.

The laundry is a couple of streets behind the opera house. We pick up our clean clothes this afternoon. Good thing! This packing light business requires either laundry treks or multiple wet items hanging on a portable clothesline in the bathroom. The bathroom items take twice as long to dry as I expected, so it's worth two subway trains and a mile walk each way to have it done by someone else. About $8 for a bag of laundry.

On the way back to our hotel we took both the correct subway trains, but we came up to street level on the wrong staircase, so we wandered around for half an hour or so on the opposite side of the street from our hotel's location. Totally lost! Next time (this afternoon, when we pick up the laundry), we'll make careful note of what's on the corner by the correct subway stairs.

3. We walked a mile each way to take an evening boat ride on the Danube. This was simply lovely. We sat upstairs, outside, with blankets over our knees. Flocks of seagulls catching bugs circled above a bridge and one of these buildings, lit from below by the structures.  Beautiful!

I'm grateful to have the endurance to walk seven miles in a day. My feet and ankles were not happy, though, when I crawled into bed at Hotel Erzebet.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Special moments on the road in Hungary

We'd spent the night in Eger, Hungary, because the tour included visits to a school and a winery before we arrived in Budapest.

Jambor Vilmos Altaldnos Iskola is a typical village school serving grades 1 to about 9. Having us visit the school benefits the kids as well as the travelers. The children learn English and having visitors allows them to practice.

We spent a brief time in the classroom with middle-school children.

This particular school has about a 62-percent Gypsy enrollment. The ethnic group originally migrated from northern India to central and eastern Europe. They are identifiable by their very dark hair and eyes and dark skin in comparison to the more fair Slavic population.

A 2012 article in The Guardian says "Gypsies, often referred to as Roma, are found across all of Europe and make up the continent's largest ethnic minority. There are about 11 million Gypsies in Europe. Centuries of discrimination, including systematic extermination by some 20th-century regimes, have helped keep many of them marginalized.

I met these girls at lunch. They reminded me of my granddaughters.

On the playground afterwards, one of our travel companions, Dave, did a few magic tricks for a delighted group of both children and adults.

A pickup soccer game ensued. The adults lost.

So far, the 90 minutes we spent at this village school is my "wow moment" of the trip.

Art and I napped while the rest of the group spent an hour at the winery nearby. There was a lot of giggling on the bus between the winery and Budapest!