Monday, August 29, 2011

Finale

It is my last night in Europe, which is probably a good thing as I smell terribly, the entire continent has almost completely run out of kebabs, and I seem to be forgetting English as is evidenced by my very natural use of the word "brang" earlier today (past tense for "brought"). This would be more excusable had I actually been learning other languages along the way but sadly I can't really claim that that's true. Although I have basically learned 5 or 6 new keyboards, which seem to change with the borders. So there's that.

We made it safely out of Slovenia several days ago, catching a 6:30 AM bus to do so. We were much more considerate than our hostelmates of the night before who got up earlier than sin and stomped around the room for several hours speaking something that I'm pretty sure was a made up language consisting entirely of the most obnoxious sounds the human voice can create. But the noise didn't bother us quite as much as the smell, as they were most definitely the stinkiest backpackers we have encountered. And we have encouterned stinky backpackers from everywhere. (For those who were wondering, I am probably about average to slightly-above-average backpacker-stinky right now). We spent a few hours in Venice waiting for our next train, which took us all the way to Florence that evening. We found a great little hotel in Florence where a very elderly man walked us to our room and then proceeded to give us a 10 minute speech about how to use the AC. Unfortunately we only understood about .2% of this speech because it was all in Italian (The .2% comes from the use of some sounds that sound like Spanish words we were probably supposed to learn in the 8th grade had we been listening in school). We think the speech was probably unnecessary, however, because the AC seemed pretty basic and we were able to use it without problems after he left the room. We are hoping, however, that his speech wasn't about how the AC leaked poisonous gases and we should avoid using it all costs. I think we're probably ok, but it's hard to tell which of my diseases have come from which place right now, so the jury is still out.

Florence was wonderful. We saw the David statue and wandered through several beautiful streets and churches. We also bought some clothes in hopes that someone will later ask us where we got them so that we can respond, "let's see . . . oh, you know what--I got this at that shop on Via Del Fabio. You know, the one in Florence." (We have practiced this several times, saying it in a voice like everyone should know where that street is). The most exciting part about Florence (other than the great art and blah blah blah) was that for the first time since before the war, we actually stopped sweating because it was quite cool out. Due to the sudden decrease in perspiration, my entire body immediately dried up and cracked from head to toe. But it was so worth it. This also helped me not want gellatto quite as much, which is definitely a good thing right now as I calculated today that I have probably had somewhere around 70 scoops in the last month (mostly in the last 3 weeks). 50 year old Eli will curse 27 year old Eli later for the things he did in 2011.

We made it back into Rome yesterday (for the 1,000th time) to say goodbye to all of our favorite sites and get ready to fly out tomorrow morning. It's been another great couple of days in Rome and we'll be sad to say goodbye.

I can't believe the trip is finally coming to end. Part of me feels like I've been away for decades (the part that desperately wants a shower and actual clean clothes as opposed to "sink washed" clothes which I'm still not sure does anything). But the time has also flown despite the days and days of adventure-packed experiences that have worn me out over the past 5 weeks. I am so thankful that I have been able to come out and do all of this. It's been a wonderful experience of making great new friends, eating my weight in terribly unhealthy foods, and experiencing cultures in unique and exciting ways. I've slept in a stranger's bed, ridden halfway across the country on a dirty train floor, and been pooped on by diseased birds. I've also played with hilarious children, ridden bikes around one of the most gorgeous cities in the world, and swam in a clear blue lake in the mountains. I've learned about cheeses and schnitzel. I've learned about art and religion. I made time to read some great books amid many naps in parks in gorgeous cities. I've been through the tourist end of town and the not so tourist end of town. I've tried juice from fruits that I didn't even know existed. I've jammed on the guitar with new friends in multiple countries. I've done a lot and seen a lot and I've loved almost every minute of it. And the minutes that I didn't quite love, I at least appreciate for the stories.


It Just Gets Stranger

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Exodus to Slovenia

Since I last left you, I have spent somewhere around 1200 hours on trains. No wait, that can't be right. However many hours it is, it feels like somewhere around 1200. We bought tickets in Rome to Venice several days ago after being told that all of the trains were full until 2075 but that we were welcome to buy "standing" tickets, which train-station-man seemed to think would be a perfectly fine option for us. We didn't like the sound of "the train is full but here are some standing tickets" but we also didn't think we had much of a choice, so off we went to find out what "standing" really meant.

Krishelle later pointed out that she was impressed that the train station was able to sell 4,000 tickets for only 400 seats. This was probably very little of an exaggeration as we boarded the train and were immediately forced to stand with our bulky backpacks and luggage in the incredibly narrow corridor outside of many six-seat compartments that lined the train. And we were not alone. The entire corridor from end to end was totally packed with panicked looking people who each had a minimum of 17 bags and had apparently also encountered the same greasy salesman in the train station who made the standing option sound like a pleasant stay in a 5 star hotel. The packed corridor somehow did not stop cart-man who miraculously pushed his way through, back and forth, for the entire day selling warm drinks and stale cookies, making us suck in our stomachs, stand on our luggage, and guard our appendages from being run over. This was like a very tricky game of twister most of the time. But I had bigger troubles to worry about than cart-man because Heather and Jonathan asked several times how long the train ride would be and I repeatedly lied to them and then had to engage in some very tricky mind-games and manipulation to keep them from finding out the truth. I told them it would just be a few short hours. Truth: we were scheduled to arrive in Venice no sooner than 6 and a half hours after take-off. I'm sure they were strong enough to handle the truth but I figured that after the Naples experience, I shouldn't risk it.

And so we rode. And we rode. Through the hot Italian deserts while hairy, sweaty, stinky, Europeans walked the length of the cabin back and forth, for no apparent reason, occasionally stopping to rest on top of us and in our laps. This misery continued until we finally arrived in Ferrara. Never heard of it? That's because the place is a dump. And we know that it is because that is where our train practically exploded. Well, we think it probably practically exploded because we can't understand what else could have caused a scheduled 2 minute stop to take 2 and a half hours. This is no exaggeration. Every 20 minutes or so the conductor would announce that we would be leaving in another 30 minutes, which we optimistically believed, over and over, like the abused in an abusive relationship (and believe me, we were the abused in a very abusive relationship with the entire train system of Italy by this point). Unfortunately for all of us, the tiny bit of air conditioning that had been coming from a couple of unclogged vents completely ceased for the duration of the break, leaving us to continue to bake in the 100 or so degree conditions.

The train finally moved on and arrived in Venice several hours later, pulling in about 9 or 10 hours after we had initially sat on the corridor floor in Rome. We think that we can relate to the pioneers now. Or some other group that has suffered. We will likely share this experience in a church lesson later mid tears (while also making up a few facts so that it actually relates to the lesson).

When we got to Venice we never wanted to climb aboard any transportation again. So we found a great apartment in the center of the city for a good deal and camped out for a couple of days. Venice was wonderful and we all felt it was well worth the trauma above mentioned to get there. We wandered from end to end of the city, visited St. Marks, ate our weight in gellato, and explored many incredible churches.

Yesterday we put our brave faces on (for the kids) and decided to make our way to Slovenia. While Venice and Ljubljana, our desired destination in Slovenia, look to be within walking distance on a world map, one finds that the train from one to the other takes literally 9 hours. This is because the train goes through Arizona to get to Ljubljana (ok, so Arizona is an exaggeration, but it actually does go all the way through Vienna, which is nowhere near either city at all. For comparison, imagine taking a train from San Diego to L.A. and having it go through Phoenix. This is actually a pretty accurate comparison). So we instead took a train to Trieste Italy for a little over one hour and then found 2 hour bus tickets to take us the rest of the way. When our bus tickets were sold to us, the four of us stood in shock, staring at one another, waiting for the catch, because we were positive that something had to go wrong since we hadn't had a seamless travel experience up to that point yet. But alas, the trip to Ljubljana went very well and we arrived safely.

We found a hostel near center that seemed like a good choice. The four of us were immediately placed in a room with 6 other strangers. We welcomed the adventure. Until night came. Four Indian men came into the room around 3:00 AM and marched around, taking things out of their bags loudly for about one hour as they prepared to go to bed. None of us can figure out why on Earth it took them so long to get ready for bed, or why they needed to be so loud about it, but they did. We sighed a major sigh of relief when they finally climbed into bed at 4:00. But the peace did not last as all of their alarm clocks began to go off in 4 minute increments starting at 6:00, which they each responded to by pressing snooze over and over again until Heather finally sat up and screamed "SHUT UP!" at 7:00. This is a true story. Any of you who know Heather are probably very shocked right now because she is so mild-mannered and typically very patient. But we found her limit this morning at exactly 7:00 AM. In her defense, it took an awful lot to get to that point. And to her credit, it worked like a charm because the whole room immediately fell silent at her request and stayed that way until she was ready to get up.

Ljubljana is gorgeous and clean and sans tourists. We love it here. Today we took a bus to Bled and swam in a gorgeous lake that sits in the mountains. Unfortunately we didn't think to bring anything to swim in, but the water was so clear and beautiful that we couldn't help ourselves so we made make-shift bathing suits with whatever clothes we brought (which may or may not have involved extensive amounts of forest nudity to get to something workable) and just hoped that we would dry off in time to climb aboard our bus back to Ljubljana at the end of the day. It all worked out very well. We swam and hiked and never wanted to leave. It truly was one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen.

Tomorrow we'll head back into Italy. Not totally sure where to just yet. Probably Verona or Florence or wherever we can go that doesn't require "standing" only tickets.

~It Just Gets Stranger 

Sunday, August 21, 2011

More Wandering in Italy

Just a quick update tonight since I don't have a lot of time.

Matt flew out a few days ago and it was sad to see him go. But he was quickly replaced (not that you could ever be replaced, Matt) by Krishelle, Heather, and Jonathan who flew into Rome to join me on a frantic few days of Italy wandering (and in some sketch neighborhoods. Welcome to the world of international travel, Heather).

We had a great couple of days in Rome, checking out the Vatican and several incredible churches and ruins. All of this amid drinking from every fountain and puddle of water in sight, including some that looked like they were meant for human consumption, and others . . . not so much. I think questionable water and even more questionable 4 weeks of kababs are having a huge fight somewhere inside of me right now. If I'm picking sides, I hope the kababs win so that I'll feel justified in consuming so many. (I'm making little sense).

Then we thought, "hey, let's go to Naples City, where the grass is green and the girls are pretty!" (Reference for you rock stars out there). The pictures we saw online looked great (although we think most of them were actually of Naples Florida, which probably is nice). So we boarded a train that must have just arrived from hell because it was hot enough to roast a kabab in there. This was likely most miserable for Heather, who, for reasons I still don't understand, was dressed like we were heading to Siberia in the winter for the entire day. So we arrived in Naples hot and sweaty. After about 35 minutes of wandering Naples looking for our hotel, which happened to actually only be about 2 minutes away, Heather informed us that "this place must be the Harlem of Italy." And she was right. Or the landfill of Italy. Or the Harlem landfill of Italy. But we dropped our things off at the hotel and asked hotel lady where the beach was, who then told us mid-cackles that there are no beaches in Naples but then pointed to a green spot on our terrible map and said that we could find something there that "looks kind of like a beach." And so we walked for another 2 or 3 hours until we reached that place and found that her description was actually pretty generous. Let me help you imagine this place. Think of a beach. Now make it the size of your bedroom. Now take away the sand and add mud and cigarette butts. Turn the water brown and put garbage in it. Now add 200,000 naked Europeans.
The next day we took a train to Sorrento where the beaches were supposed to be lovely. Sorrento was a cool little town and really pretty. the beaches were about one step above the "beach" of Naples, but the town and area was really fun to see.

We decided to head back north since it was too difficult to find ferries out to Croatia on such short notice. We made it back into Rome this afternoon and wandered a bit more and recovered from yet another train that had just come from hell (where it's summer right now so it's even hotter than just normal hell). Tomorrow we'll train up to Venice and stay for a night or two and figure out where to go from there.

We're having a great time, although I'm getting tired and hope to sleep for about 15 months when we get home.
 
~It Just Gets Stranger 

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Padova (Venice), Pisa, and Rome

It's been a nice and busy few days since I last wrote. We made it successfully into Padova, as promised, but not without some hilarity on the way. Our train from Salzburg into Padova was a night train. Another night train like the last we took where dozens of strangers were piled on top of one another in a dense layer of human bodies while the conductor turned the heat to full-blast for the entirety of the night. Our cabin had six people in it, like last time. We were the two middle bunks, sandwiched by two British guys below us and two Japanese girls above us, who sat up in their beds for the majority of the night, with the light on, saying over and over in high-pitched voices the only English word we ever heard them speak, "whaaaaaaaaaat?!?" followed by the occasional ghostly yet worried sounding "oooooooooh." This all started after Matt attempted to have a very confusing conversation with them about why he was moving their luggage around to make room for ours.

We arrived in Padova at 5:51 AM, which was 30 minutes before the Venice station where the vast majority of the people would be getting off. The train person woke us up a bit before our stop so we could get our things and get ready to jump off. This woke up the entire cabin however at which point confusing conversation part II took place where the girls on the top bunk attempted to feed their luggage down to us in a frantic daze, prepared to jump off with us at Padova, where they undoubtedly would have been incredibly confused as Padova looks as much like Venice as Kearns Utah. Eventually we resorted to crude caveman like gestures and sentence structures (You Venice. We Padova. This NO Venice.) while they continued the "whaaaaats?!" and "ooooooohs?!" Sometime during this mess the British became alert and also started frantically asking if they were supposed to get off the train now. One of us finally yelled a final, "everybody just stay!" as we hopped off and left them to fend for themselves. We had our own problems and most of the time hardly know where are ourselves. I've wondered many times since whether any of them made it to Venice.

Then Padova. We had a couchsurfing couple in Padova who are some of my favorite people I have ever met. They actually lived just outside of Padova in a town called Sarmeola. We stayed with them for a couple of nights. One of the nights we had a great Italian dinner with more cheeses than I knew existed and some drink (the non-alcoholic option) that tasted worse than any mixture of liquids I could ever come up with on my own. I did a lot of pouring my can into Matt's cup while he wasn't looking, ultimately getting to the point where I was sure I was going to upchuck cheese you've never even heard of all over the table if I had to even pretend to take one more sip. Somehow we got out of drinking more of it (although there seemed to be an unlimited supply and possibly an expectation that we would completely deplete that supply (don't try to make sense of that)). This was because they whipped out the guitar and for the rest of the night we jammed together and sang and laughed and had one of the most fun nights I've had in a long time. We loved spending time with them and were so sad to leave.

During one of our Padova days we took a train into Venice and wandered for the day. The city was incredible. I didn't try to drink any of the canal water (I have a goal to drink water from every lake, river, and stream in the world before I die . . . or until I die . . . I don't remember the goal exactly) because the water was a new color that I don't think I've ever seen before (and here I thought I had seen them all). But other than that, Venice was clean and beautiful and bustling with tourists, which brought us back to not-so-happening Padova, which we thought we could take an entire day to explore, only to find that 27 minutes was actually sufficient. Nonetheless we filled our time doing the usual: eating everything in sight and taking naps in parks.

We left Padova a couple of days ago and trained to Pisa where we stayed for the night. We hadn't planned on going to Pisa at all but we found a couchsurfing host there and thought it might be interesting to check out. This was partly because this was suggested by two guys we met in Venice who were from St. George and who were also travelling through Central and Eastern Europe but having a much different experience than we were. They have been literally sleeping on the streets for several weeks (and they looked and smelled like it too) and had also been robbed in Rome, badly; one of their backpacks with all that they had had been swiped at a train station. I felt badly for them, but then less so when I realized they had some bad karma following them after they explained to us how they had cheated the system to get free train rides in addition to some other perks by falsifying various documentation throughout Europe. In any event, they gave us great advice, and also unintentionally convinced us that sleeping on the street, which we were pretty willing to try up to that point, was actually not a good idea.

Pisa was nice. We had a couchsurfer there who, through some miscommunication on both of our parts, didn't get home until pretty late. We hung out under the pillars of some old church playing poker (with devil cards) while we waited for him to come home, wondering if sleeping on the street would actually happen after all. But he made it home and let us into our room after explaining to us that he has several roommates who are currently out of town, which is why he had so many free beds. We wondered once or twice whether his roommates had any idea that he was letting the strangers of the world inhabit their personal space whenever they skipped town but then figured we would probably be gone long before they ever found out. In any event, mystery roommates probably got the last laughs as their beds and sheets were not so clean and may have given me bedbugs (I'm mostly kidding--but I do have about 300 mosquito-looking bites on my legs right now from that night, despite Matt's crusade against them where he stood and killed somewhere in the hundreds before finally declaring the place "sleepable" and climbing into his bed. I'm now referring to it as "The Great Battle of the Bugs of 2011." Screenplay coming.).

The Pisa tower was incredible. And actually really leaning. More than you would think. There's really nothing else to see in Pisa except for graffiti and kabab stands, all of which we visited in the 24 hours we were in town.


Yesterday we rolled into Rome and wandered the city for the afternoon and evening, looking at the beautiful churches and ruins. Rome is wonderful. Hot and crowded, but wonderful. Today we made it over to the Vatican and did some more city exploring. Rome is the first and only city on this trip where we did not find couchsurfers so we found a hostel near the train station, which has worked out nicely, even though we have serious communication problems with all of the employees (but we're getting used to that).

Matt is flying out in the morning and I'll go with him to the airport to see him off and pick up Krishelle, Heather, and Jonathan so we can continue our adventure for a bit longer. I can't believe it's already time for him to take off. He's been a lot of fun to travel with, plus he doesn't smell that bad, as far as backpackers go.

~It Just Gets Stranger

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Austria

We have travelled quite a bit since I last wrote you. First we had a couple of great days in Prague (or "Praha" as we natives like to call it). For two and a half days we wandered the city, ate some amazing food and lounged around reading books. Mostly my attention span only allowed me to read for about 12 minutes at a time between long naps. The city was gorgeous and our couch surfing host there was awesome. She made us some great Czek food and wandered the city for a while with us. Prague feels like a step back in time, except for the 12 and a half million obnoxious tourists standing in front of the clock in the center square all day with cameras waiting for it to chime on the hour, every hour, so they can essentially ooo and aaah at absolutely nothing at all. (Ok, so I wasn't super impressed with the clock, and I'm finding out that I'm not ultra crazy about crowds). We also spent part of this day taking classic "girl study abroad in Europe" pictures that we've seen from several of our friends over the years. So far we have great shots of: pretending to open a castle door, emphatic jumping on an old street, making a scandalous face while putting arm around old statue, and many many more. If any of you can think of pictures we've left out, please let us know ASAP.

We hopped on a train from Prague to Vienna a couple of days ago and had a gorgeous ride through Austria. We had a couch surfing couple host us in Vienna and we loved them. We loved the city too but the saddest part about leaving Vienna for me was saying goodbye to them. We hung out with them the two nights we were there and swapped funny travel stories, laughing and eating amazing Austrian food. Vienna was fun. The city was less busy with tourists and so a bit more pleasant to wander. We visited a million more churches and ate food from street vendors that looked suspicious but apparently weren't too bad because neither of us has upchucked yet.

Yesterday we hopped a train out to Salzburg (western Austria). This is one of the most amazing cities I've ever seen. It sits in the middle of and on top of several green mountains and cliffs. The city is really old and really clean. We didn't have a place to stay when we were planning to head to Salzburg and thought we would have to search for some hostels when we got here but fortunately a girl invited us over very last minute. We're staying in this really cool house burried in the forest on the edge of town. They have several bikes sitting out front to ride into town so we've been biking and hiking all over Salzburg for the last 24 hours, looking at castles and churches and eating even more questionable food from street vendors (fingers crossed). The biking has been interesting, primarily because neither of us has ridden a bike since 1992 but also because we have a difficult time reading the signs and understanding the very complex bike traffic laws in this city. We may end up on a later episode of locked up abroad, which is fine with me if they serve schnitzel in their prisons. As for the not riding a bike since 1992, as it turns out, "it's just like riding a bike" has earned its status as the ultimate proverbial phrase for never forgetting how to do something, except for as pertains to the hind parts, which apparently have LONG since forgotten how to ride a bike. But enough about me.

Tonight we'll head out to Italy via train. We're going to a town called Padova which is near Venice (it's sort of a long story how we ended up getting tickets to Padova, but in the end, being the travel snobs that we are, we are excited to go to a less well known place so that we can later tell others that we went there in a tone that sounds like we think everyone should know where Padova is). It will be a little sad to leave Austria just when we've gotten so good at speaking German (and by speaking German, I mean saying English words in German accents over and over and then laughing like it's the first time we've done it. Our current favorite is saying the the word "people" but replacing the L with and R).

~It Just Gets Stranger 

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Krakow: Put Your Hand to the Up

When we last left you we were just beginning our "homeless day" in L'viv. We planned to head out of L'viv for Krakow on Wednesday morning but after a very dramatic train/bus ticket buying experience where the lady who finally sold us our tickets told us with a roll of her eyes, "I don't know why on Earth you boys are trying to go to Krakow. It's the exact same thing as L'viv." But we were skeptical so we bought bus tickets anyway, the earliest ones available, which were for 10:00 PM. So off we wandered into L'viv for the day to lounge on benches in the city to read books and eat ridiculous amounts of juice (we've each had at least on liter per day since arriving in Europe), vafly and borsch. And surprisingly, this may go down as the best day of our lives.

For those who are wondering about Serhey since you heard from me last, you might be interested to hear his side of the story, which I have for you as he left a comment about me on couchsurfers that we have been laughing about nonstop for three days: "Eli is man of a nice surprise) One won't regret to meet him: positive, open minded, democratic and with good sence of humor =)." We haven't quite pinned down what my "nice surprise" was but I'm ecstatic that he thinks of me as democratic. Gosh I miss Serhey.

We boarded the Krakow-bound bus that evening after being told that we would arrive in Krakow the following morning around 6:00AM. Why on Earth does it take eight hours to drive from L'viv to Krakow when it looks only this big (holding fingers close together) on the map, you ask? I'll tell you. Because after 1 hour of driving to the border, the bus stopped and we engaged in what I'm finding to be a pretty typical land-border crossing experience throughout the world. For the next 3 or 4 hours, we were moved in and out of the bus (which would pull forward about 35 feet every time we got back into it, only to be ushered back out again) while various armed guards took and gave back our passports repeatedly in a near never ending cycle of unproductive nonsense. Fortunately during all of this we were able to meet multiple entertaining people including one Russian kid who was willing to tell us how to buy cocaine in about 15 different countries if we were interested. While I wasn't quite to that point, this was probably about the closest he was ever going to come to finding me willing. There was also a group of Spaniards aboard the bus who were trekking back home after completing some pilgrimage. Matt was fortunately listening and able to translate their conversation when they first boarded the bus only to find that they couldn't sit together, to which an older woman announced to the group with a big smile, "we are separate, but we are happy." And then immediately holding up a sack of something unidentified, she enthusiastically continued, "I have onions! Who wants an onion?!" We later saw some of this group eating these onions like apples. Fortunately for the border crossing people the onion mastication occurred after this group was specifically sequestered for what we found out was apparently a very intrusive frisking, as was evident in the wide eyes, odd walking, and panicked hand gestures meant to demonstrate to each of us that they had been given some special treatment in the back room at about 3:00AM when they were returned to the group.

But we finally made it into Krakow without eating any onions or buying any cocaine. We then met our new couch surfing hosts, Marta and Tomasz. I will never be able to adequately describe Marta and Tomasz. All I can do is later send you pictures we took of their wedding photo album. Marta and Tomasz didn't really speak much English and they wouldn't ever really look us straight in the eye. But they love climbing and followed us around the apartment here and there insisting on talking about it as much as possible, saying over and over again things like, "you haven't pictures climbing?", "you climb?", "we climb, zis is good", and occasionally "have you see cat?" The cat comments came up particularly frequently whenever we attempted to ask a question about how to get out of their gate, which apparently sounds an awful lot like "cat" to them. But Marta and Tomasz were incredibly nice and great hosts. They let us wander around and do what we needed to while they carried on with their lives (which included a lot of what we think was intense argument in Polish about the weather. But we can't be sure).

Krakow was incredible. As the bus lady in L'viv told us, it did look quite a bit like L'viv, which was fine with us. The city was gorgeous and the people were very friendly. Just after we got into the city I started talking to a girl named Eliza on the tram who looked like she knew her way around only to find out that she was from Poland and currently living in London and that she had brought over a group of friends to show them around Krakow. She helped us buy some train tickets and gave us some great advice. We ended up meeting up with their group later to take a tour of the salt mines just outside of the city, which were incredibly interesting. Unfortunately the tour of the mines was about 13 days too long and by the end I felt like the whole thing was going to turn out like The Dissent. But we survived. Our favorite thing that happened here was when Matt and I split from the group and asked a girl on the way out how to get back to Krakow, to which she responded (and this quote is exact): "Zis is best idea. You must take bus. First you must be looking good. Zen you must put your hand to the up." (Translation: Take the bus. Look carefully to find the right one and then raise your hand to get it to stop). For two days now we have been inserting her directions into every song and rap we can think of. We're adding "hand to the up girl" to our long list of people we want to take home with us.

Yesterday we headed out to Auschwitz, which is about an hour away from Krakow. As you can imagine, it was incredibly depressing and horrific. We wandered the camp for several hours, which has been left pretty untouched since the end of WWII. Even some of the buildings (gas chamber buildings), which were blown up, still lay untouched since the 40s. It was incredibly bizarre to be there and a really good experience, although uncomfortable and sad (uncomfortable both because the history is so tragic and because it's just a miserably hot un-shaded place in the summer, much like I think it probably was when it was actually in use).
We hopped a train last night in Prague. This was a sleeper train and each small compartment had SIX people in it, with three beds going up each side. It felt like I was living in the dorms again with about 500 rowdy 20-something year old travelers from all over the world.
There is about a 65% chance we both contracted bacterial meningitis. But we made it to Prague this morning. Fortunately we had a last minute couch surfer contact us last night, offering her place. Her name is Ivana and she met us this morning and took us to her apartment and then went with us into the city for a 3 hour walking tour. The city is gorgeous but unfortunately overrun with tourists. In any event, it's fun to walk the winding streets and see so much incredible architecture. The city looks a lot like L'viv and Krakow, but bigger and taller. We'll stay here until Monday afternoon when we'll hop a train to Vienna.

Having an incredibly great time and laughing constantly (except for at Auschwitz, of course). Thanks for all the messages.


~It Just Gets Stranger

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Sleeping With Sergei, L'viv

When we last left you we were in Kyiv having a great time with Max and Natalia. We spent a lot of time with both of them and toured a lot of the city (and I mean a LOT--Max may be the fastest walker I've ever met in my entire life. There were several moments where we actually had to break out into a run to keep up with him, which was strange because he looked like he was going at a leisurely pace). On our last night there we thought it would be nice to make them some Mexican food (because, you know, we're from Mexico). This did not go without turning into sort of a mess where at the grocery store I sent Matt to weigh peppers (you have to weigh produce and get a label on it before checkout).

When he brought it up to the checkout lady she freaked out because he had come back having labeled his two red peppers "apples" and something that we still can't identify. To his credit, when I took them back to give it a try I found that even an understanding of the language wasn't that helpful because the label machine was like a very stressful identification game with black and white "pictures" of about 2,000 different items of produce that all looked exactly the same. I got about four or five different labels for each and took it back to let the lady choose whichever one she thought would work. We finally made it home and cooked (chimichangas, or something we called chimichanges--very Mexican, I know). We think they liked it. In any event, it all worked out very nicely and we were very sad to leave them and the kids and we miss them quite a bit already.

Then we boarded our first of what will probably be many many trains over the next week. Things that happened on the train: homegirl from below tickled Matt's feet (he was on the top bunk) every hour, on the hour, all night long; the train seemed to hop the tracks and just go off-roading for most of the night; Matt came back from the bathroom and only had one thing to say--"well, it was pretty wet in there"; and it was well over 200 degrees for the vast majority of the trip. All of the usual really.


We rolled into L'viv early yesterday morning and wandered my favorite parts of the city, including every church that I wish I could live in permanently. We attended a great Orthodox service in the middle of all of that. Then lunch happened where we had some of the greatest borsch of all time. Part way through lunch we both started talking about how we wished we were wearing shorts instead of pants.


We then remembered that we are currently packing our entire lives around with us at all times so changing is usually an option. Matt stepped inside the restaurant to ask where the bathroom was so he could change and then came out about 5 minutes later looking very confused. I then went in to look for myself, going down the basement of the place because we thought that looked like a place where one might keep the bathroom. I didn't find a bathroom however down there but did find an empty dining room, so naturally I just changed in there.

This seemed like a good idea until I came back up there stairs and passed every single person who worked there who were now each staring at me and my handful of clothes that they had just seen me in, probably wondering why I just got undressed in the basement of their restaurant where there is no bathroom. We got out of there in a hurry thinking that we would never have to see those people again. Wrong. About four hours later we went back for borsch (you have to believe me--this stuff was really good).

We still desperately tried to hide from anyone who we recognized which was effective until we ran into one girl on our way out who actually laughed in our faces. We're positive they've been thinking all day about the Americans that took their clothes off in their restaurant. And who came twice in one day to eat borsch. And who don't smell so great. And who look incredibly sleep deprived.

But our real concern throughout the day had to do with where we were going to stay last night.


We had set up something through couchsurfing with a guy named Sergei who looked nice enough on his profile to trust with our lives. Right before we were supposed to meet him at his place, Matt happened to look at his profile again, in time to read a message I seemed to have missed when I initially searched for people in L'viv and sent him a request: "I have one room where i'm living, so i can share with it! There can be placed 2 people on my bed!" This was in the middle of several other things he wrote about how "L'viv is fan place!" and "come stay! 3 days is too many!"

We got to Sergei's apartment at 9:00PM wondering all day whether "there can be placed 2 people on my bed" meant what it sounded like (and optimistically coming up with thousands of other possible interpretations, none of which actually made any sense at all. But we were hopeful).

Our hopes were in vain as we entered Sergei's apartment and he showed us his room with the worlds smallest bed and optimistically told us, "I think we can all three fit there tonight!" He then pointed to Matt and explained, "it is good thing you are big zis way and not big zis way" (using hand gestures to explain that he is relieved to see that Matt is just tall and not fat). We enthusiastically agreed, trying desperately not to make eye contact because we knew we would lose it the second we did. We had a good conversation with him for a while before he told us we were welcome to go to bed if we wanted to.

I'm not sure that we really wanted to go to bed but we were incredibly tired from train off-roading the night before so off to bed we went. Sergei stayed up for a while in the kitchen while Matt and I lay in bed trying with all our might to gain composure, more freaked out that we were going to start laughing when he came to climb in with us than we were about sleeping with a stranger in the first place. There were a lot of jokes exchanged during this time that did not help us in our pursuit to either fall asleep or get really good at being stone-faced (there were suggestions that I should have told Sergei that Matt wets the bed every night).

The anticipation almost killed us and unfortunately neither of us were even close to being asleep when Sergei climbed in. Although we pretended to be. We pretended to be all night. Including every 45 minutes or so when Sergei attempted to cuddle with me in his sleep. He took up about half of the tiny bed, and we took the other half--although Matt had one arm on the ground the whole night, holding himself up in a half pushup as I inched closer and closer to him each time Sergei put his arm or leg around me.

We got up incredibly early and high-tailed it out of there after Sergei made me hold some rodent he had bought that day. Despite all of the strangess of the situation, I do have to say that he was incredibly nice and actually pretty normal to talk to. And we learned something new about what to look for on couchsurfing profiles.

We hoped to take a bus early today out of L'viv to Krakow but we couldn't get one until 10:00 tonight so we are lounging in L'viv for the day before another inevitably sleepless night.


Ok, we're off to the next adventure. Thanks for all your email responses. Sorry I don't have to time to write back individually--but it's good to hear from you anyway.


~It Just Gets Stranger