Yesterday was my birthday. I turned 27 and so far it seems to be going well. In honor of being a year older, I thought I'd take a stab at writing a few more posts than I have in the last few months. Which shouldn't be too hard.
My birthday started a few days early, first with a girl's afternoon to see Snow White and the Hunstman, and then for frozen yogurt after. Everyone enjoyed the movie, especially having no naysayers along to insert complaints about Kristin Stewart.
Jordan also took me out for a fondue dinner, with fries on the side La Swise style.
We also enjoyed some fancy tea at a coffee shop after dinner.
On my actual birthday morning we had a delicious breakfast of donuts and Doug's special potatoes.
And what's that present?
It's the only Cap'n Crunch in Amman!
Jordan also gave me this beautiful collection of jewelery, picked up here and there on our travels.
We enjoyed a hamburger dinner, and then who showed up?
It's Brendan! And see how happy Toby is for everyone to be home. He's singing!
Here we are enjoying Brendan's birthday present, which he brought himself from the states.
Yes, I'm looking worried. But it's okay, because there were still birthday cupcakes leftover.
What else did Brendan bring from the States? A beautiful Kindle from everyone!
Look, it matches!
A few days before we left Korea, Jordan and I started a "Photo of the Day" project. Amazingly, it was only a year ago that we left Korea which we can now celebrate with a set of 365 photos. Our accomplishment I feel is only ho hum, since most people who accomplish this project do so without visiting half of Europe and SouthEast Asia. Next time perhaps we'll focus more on the everyday side of life.
I got a new dress. This is very exciting because for the last year I've been limited to about two outfits. Before that, I was trying to wear out my clothes so that when we left Korea I could leave them and not feel bad (I didn't). So I haven't done any real shopping since before I can remember. This has been kind of a big change and can be contrasted with my freshman year of college when I had so many clothes that I didn't do laundry for three months.
However I have recently added the first of some new things to my wardrobe.
Check out those stylish chaco tans!
Let's revisit what I've been wearing for the last year. A long time ago, Jordan conviced me that I should wear normal traveling pants.
Eventually I decided I really wasn't a traveling pants kind of person. Also that flannel shirt really didn't fit. I traded in my traveling pants for these excellent ones that were made in Vietnam.
Sadly, they ripped, so I traded them in for these stylish polka dot shorts (shirt courtesy of my mom).
Also, in Malaysia I bought this nice shirt:
which you have to admit is perfect for petting goats in.
When it was cold I looked like this (thanks Mom for that fleece):
or this (also, thanks for that nice black scarf):
And when it rained I looked like this:
This was my outfit when we were on the go:
It also worked well when you want to blend in:
or stand out:
And this outfit worked well for a picnic:
And a hike:
Jordan looked like this:
He takes traveling outfits seriously.
I am sitting in compartment B on an unremarkable train in one of Serbia’s minor outlying villages, somewhere along its twisting eastern border. I share the compartment with my sleeping wife (face mirror-like with sweat), two backpackers from Australia, and two older Serbian women. Marisa and I were originally meant to be in the compartment next door, but when we embarked the train early this morning in Belgrade our reserved seats had been claimed, along with their attending four, by six burly men who informed us that paid reservations were not particularly meaningful in “this country.”
Just as well, as our companions in compartment B have been perfectly amicable, if not particularly sedentary. Since joining the train about an hour back, the two Serbian women have been fidgeting almost constantly: now rising to rearrange their baggage (they have lots of it); now shoeing us out of our seats so they can stand on them to better reach the overhead luggage racks; now looking out the window; now navigating through tangles of legs to peek out the door. Since stopping at the border, they have been particularly disinclined to sit still. Just now one of them gives me a wink after standing on the seat next to me in order to stuff a black bag up behind my backpack; should I be worried?
Perhaps the fidgeting is brought on by the heat. Supposedly 102 degrees outside, it’s probably a little hotter in here: the sun has been beating in for some time, and only a shoestring breeze finds its way through the crack in the window that I’ve managed to prop open with the rocks; like all the windows on this train, it’s ingeniously made to spring shut if nobody’s holding it down. Behind the rock and the crack in the window is a ticket office plastered in Coca-Cola stickers; the images of ice-cold refreshment seem at this moment unnecessary, and cruel. And so I sit and dream of ice as we wait for border control, and permission to continue on into Bulgaria.
In some ways things have changed quite a lot since the start of our European journey… then it was cold and overcast; then the trains moved faster and went further; then ice-cold refreshments and air-conditioned compartments were a consistent reality (even if made unnecessary by the cold weather); then trains left on time, and seat reservations meant something more. But the scenery then had not been as spectacular, the countryside had not felt as close, and those train rides on balance had not been as memorable.
Waiting to depart from Belgrade station.
Then there are the things that have remained constant as we’ve trekked across the continent. Namely Coca-Cola. A significant irony as there were few things Europeans feared more, wanted less, or were more unified in protesting in 1947 (when Coke opened its first bottling plants in France), than the “Coca-Colonisation” of the continent. This I have learned from Tony Judt’s fat book on Europe, Postwar, a history since 1945. Fat books are good for long train rides; this one has lasted through several.
Which makes me consider my trip now that I’m here at the end, in the sun, on these last tracks, waiting for a final stamp in my passport. In a few days the traveling part of my oh-so-weird project will come to an end… after more than three-hundred days on the road, seventy of those spent here in Europe, I will halt in Amman and make games. Routine, something which seems remote and imaginary--even exotic--from my current position in space-time, will enter my life again. In Amman I will wake, take a shower, sit down at a desk, and spend the rest of my day hitting keys with my fingers in an attempt to bring ones and zeros to life. What will my binary daydreams be like then? What will I remember of all this?
Oxford. Port Meadow and Ot Moor and all the fabulous spaces sprinkled ‘round the shire. There aren’t spaces like those where I’m going. There aren’t spaces like those where I’ve been. Spaces to walk through freely no matter who owns the land, spaces to breathe in, spaces where the first dinosaurs were dug up and named.
Port Meadow, Oxfordshire.
Communal living at Darvell. Walking down a path that first night and coming upon two octogenarians examining craters in the moon. Songs and dances, vegetables and discussions of faith… everyone happy to see us, everyone glowing like Moses.
View from our room at Darvell; welcome cards and cookies in the foreground.
Game-jamming at Cambridge. Meeting Stephen and Terry and Alan and all those friendly indies. Testing games and speaking code, and having people understand.
Jamming hard in Cambridge.
Paris in the rain. That apartment with its small balcony and graphic novel of Genesis, so exactly like my preconception of what a Parisian apartment should be like, yet tactile and thick with history. The Louvre being too big to look at, and too good for English. The Eiffel Tower hiding away till we found it and jumped. Competing with Karith and Marisa to find invaders.
An invaders spotted in Paris. Marisa found that one.
The names of people in Belgium, sounding as friendly as they were; Hucky Gillen and Inge Hernie. Talks about Afghanistan, and going back there. Following Inge to a fake beach on the river where we waited for the sun to set, then froze to death while watching Once Upon a Time In Mexico on a giant outdoor screen. Chasing down building-sized comic strips in Brussels. Drinking hot cocoa at the Grande Place and thinking that it was, and is, the best old square in Europe. Learning that everything French is Belgian. Finding Magritte, and Saint Bavo Cathedral: the church I most want to go back to. Eating baklava with Tale of Tales.
One of Brussels' many comic strip murals.
Meeting our landlord in Amsterdam, whose vast collection of old computer games bonded us instantly. Finding my favorite painting in the world and staring at it for an hour: the real thing so much more vivid and quiddative than its many reproductions. Cars that made Smart models look fat.
Van Gogh's Sunflowers.
Berlin, the seat of the middle of Europe: how it brought home all the wars I’d been reading about in a way that stayed with me through the rest of our trip. Pieces of wall, Checkpoint Charlie; half a century of a divided country, continent, and world.
View from Berlin Tower. The Reichstag can be seen in the distance.
Staying with Petr Kotouš in the Czech Republic; talking about computer games and poetry; introducing him to the indie scene while he introduced me to walking beer. Sitting with Marisa on Castle Hill, watching a rainbow come out after the rain, and thinking that Prague was perhaps the most beautiful city we’d been to. Smoulove craziness in the old town square… a craziness that followed us everywhere in Europe.
View of Prague from Castle Hill.
The architecture of Vienna: elegant, bold, and regal. Discovering Hundertwasser, his rejection of straight lines, his proposal of tree tenants. Coffee and streusel, schnitzel and cake.
Budapest. St. Stephen’s Basilica, with its interior almost too golden to look at, and the withered hand of Hungary’s first king off in a corner, sitting there in the dark till someone dropped fifty cents to light it with neon. Hiking through the heat of the city, then wandering into a cave church and feeling the cool air wash over us as we listened to a mass begin. Talking into the night with Ildiko and Peter Rozsovits about everything from color theory to Nazi occupation… an occupation still evidenced by bullet holes in the house where we stayed, a house built by Ildiko’s father, which had once been far out in the countryside though now its surrounded by city.
Interior of St. Stephen's Basilica.
Leaving tourists and air-conditioned trains behind as we headed towards Zagreb. Meandering through Mirogoj cemetery and feeling no disappointment at its beauty, though I had been warned that it was one of the world’s most impressive burial grounds. Stumbling into a Franciscan church on the way home that wasn’t marked on our map as anything special, yet turned out to be one of the best churches I’ve ever been in: not giant, but splendid--while somehow still humble and earthy; no sound but the gentle rustle of robes as a priest went about his duties; no light but the rainbows cast by stained birds and fishes and beasts of the field. And next door the city cathedral, once considered the furthest reach of Western Christianity; thick walls were built to defend it from Turks, if it came to that.
Ban Jelacic Square, Zagreb.
Being picked up at the train station in Sarajevo by an ancient man in an ancient Citroën that was easily twice my age. Getting to our hostel, sitting down in the garden, and listening to the owner talk for two hours about the history of his people, a people nearly snuffed out in the ethnic war that ended only fifteen years ago. “Nobody cared,” he told us, “Not the EU, not the UN… only America saved us.” The first time in my life I had heard (in first-person) a non-American speak in favor of any kind of U.S. military action overseas.
Cemetery for victims of the four year siege of Sarajevo during the Bosnian War, just around the corner from our hostel.
Then only two days ago there was a night in Belgrade with our couch surfing hosts and their friends… some beers and some laughs, and Vladimir playing his trumpet. Walking by the biggest people I’ve ever seen as we strolled through city streets. Sitting on a piece of old fortress and watching the sun set where the Sava and the Danube meet. Waiting as lights turned on, and young people came out to play basketball beneath those same old fortress walls. Sleeping, then boarding a last train.
Night basketball in Belgrade.
And now here we are at Bulgaria’s border.
And now something funny has happened.
Across from me one of our Serbian friends has pulled up her shirt just slightly, and is unwrapping from around her waist a nylon stocking which she’s tied there. And in the stocking are packs of cigarettes. And now the other woman pulls down the black bag that she hid behind my backpack earlier. More cigarettes. They continue reaching into their clothes.
The police have come and gone, with passport control, and now all along the train people are scurrying madly, jamming fingers into secret holes, sticking arms up to elbows between places that really shouldn’t have a between. And all of the holes, and all the betweens contain cigarettes: packs and packs, cartons and cartons. It looks like Marisa and I, and the Australian couple in our compartment may very well be the only people on the whole train who didn’t depart Belgrade as smugglers.
As we start our slow chug towards Sofia the train settles down; indeed, the women in our compartment have undergone a remarkable transformation since recovering their last treasures from pant legs: they sit still now, and smile contentedly while chatting quietly together. I can’t help but smile contentedly myself. I started writing this piece with some idea of having a grand reflection, of getting at the meaning of the trip, the meaning of travel, the meaning of Europe and me. And I’ve failed to do anything but reminisce. But right now that’s enough for me. Right now this train ride is enough for me.
A little movie I made about our trip.
Or: That Time We Went to Bulgaria
The trip to Bulgaria was much more exciting than I had anticipated. It was our last train ride in Europe, heading out from Belgrade in Serbia to our final destination Sofia. Based on our other train rides through the Baltic states I imagined that the ride would be very hot and rather long. It turned out instead to be full of smugglers.
We were sharing a compartment with a couple from Australia, when a little more than half way into the trip two old ladies barged in with lots of bags. They had lots of bags. And they were sharing the room with 4 backpackers, so that's saying something. Despite helping them to get all their possessions stored in the racks, for the next hour or two the ladies would take turns jumping up and doing something, whether going out into the hallway for two minutes and then coming back, or trying to rearrange their bag. Of course rearranging the bag required them to stand on the seat, and they would sometimes shoo us out so they could thoroughly move their bag from here to there. And back again. At one point one of them took a smaller bag out of their bag and stuffed it behind Jordan's backpack, giving him a wink and putting her finger to her lip to indicate that it was "their little secret."
It was all a little disconcerting when compared to the peace we had been enjoying earlier.
Eventually we reached the Bulgarian border, which meant we were headed back in the EU which we had been out of for a few countries. The nice thing about going over the border on the train in Europe is that they don't make you get off the train. Instead, the customs officials come to you. What an idea! So you can just keep watching the movie on your iPod while they try and figure out what's going on.
In this case we were still sitting around long after they had run off and run back with our passports. So I looked out of our cabin into the hallway and realized the officials were back and they had taken the ceiling off from the neighboring compartment. Quick discussion amongst our cabin, with a tip from a fellow German traveler from a different compartment, determined that they were checking for cigarettes. The ladies sharing our space at this point were looking very nonchalant.
Eventually the officials came and kicked us out of our room so they could take the ceiling off and check for illegal contraband. One of them was holding a small bag of confiscated cigarettes. They didn't find any in our ceiling. Once the train started moving again though, it became apparent that a) just checking the ceiling was perhaps not very thorough and b) everyone on the train was smuggling cigarettes. As the train chugged into Bulgaria the hallways and compartments took on the feeling of an Easter morning with everyone going around and reaching their hands into unnoticed nooks and crannies and pulling out cartons of cigarettes. The ladies in our compartment pulled back their stash from behind Jordan's backpack, untied nylons stuffed with their spoils from around their waists and then relaxed and made no more movements for the rest of the ride, having successfully smuggled their goods over the border.
Unfortunately for Belgrade, someplace had to come after Sarajevo and it was unlucky enough to be the next stop. It was another hot and long train trip, but instead of ending up in a surprisingly wonderful place, this time the unknown turned out to be less desirable. To illustrate this, all over Europe I've been taking jumping pictures in front of famous monuments. This is the one I took in Belgrade:
It's not really fair to the city, as they did have some more scenic places than these smokestacks, but they were my first impression of the city. The place we were staying was a little out of the city center in a new apartment development that looked like it had been airlifted right from Korea, which had a nice homey feeling, but the downside was that it was surrounded by flat, empty land and those smokestacks. So after the beautiful hills of Sarajevo it was a bit of a downer.
Once we managed to get into the city, it was nice. We took a little boat ride across the river and had a nice dinner, since food had gotten significantly cheaper as we travelled south and east through Europe.
They had a very nice citadel which we walked through at dusk, watching the sunset over the meeting of the two rivers (Danube and Sava).
Overall, not really a bad place, definetly with some interesting moments. Is it a coincidence that my least favorite place in Europe came right after my favorite? It could be, but then the same was true in Asia with Taiwan being our standout and then Vietnam becoming notorious as my least favorite place on the planet. There was probably little hope for either Vietnam or Belgrade coming in the trip plan when they did, but Belgrade at least tried to redeem itself.
We arrived to Sarajevo after a long and very hot train ride. The train ride was long enough and hot enough to make me doubt my true desires to visit such a place. I didn't know much about it. Our planning process for this trip consisted mostly of finding the biggest cities and going to them. Then, Jordan snuck a few obscure places in because he likes the road less traveled. I prefer the road to be air conditioned.
However, sometimes a little sweat is in fact worth it (don't tell Jordan I said so), because if you were to ask, "Of all the places you visited, where would you most like to live?" Sarajevo would likely be my answer.
Sarajevo, it turns out, is something like a Superhome, hiding in the mountains of the Baltic. I dubbed it Superhome the first morning we were walking around because it reminded me of many places I think of as home. It remineded me most strongly of La Paz, since the city sits in a valley and sprawls upward and at night the lights glisten from the hills.
Also, the minarets popping up all over the place reminded me of all the wonderful time I've spent in Jordan (with Jordan).
And the European flair reminds me of the home I didn't really know, but have overly romanticized in my head, in Slovenia.
The hostel we stayed at, despite claiming to be up a small hill, was in fact most of the way up the side of the mountain. However, the hike was really worth it when you got to look out this window whenever you wanted.
We even had a pleasant time eating with the locals some mysterious food, which turned out to be sausages.
Yum, is it dinnertime yet?
Also, Sarajevo had the most delicious water we encountered. Always really cold and they had fancy fountains all over town to get a drink (also lots of misters).
Overall, definitely a highlight of our trip.
Most of days during our two months in Europe were cool, even cold at some points. This was good because I've become somewhat incapable of withstanding heat, particularily if the sun is out. If I'm honest, I don't even really like the sun. I mean I like it fine when it's far away, but I don't really appreciate when the Earth tilts and it comes closer and tries to burn the brain right out of your head. This is why in Zagreb I behaved mostly like a vampire and refused to go outside during the day and instead hid inside where the sun could not find me.
A picture I did not take because you'll notice the sun has bleached the sky with it's intensity:
Instead, I come out at dusk when the sky is nicer:
Things get even better when the sky is black:
If you must go outside during the day, head for the cathedral to cool off. I have been known to attend a church service just to sit in the cool air.
Also, Tangerine Schwepps can be delicious and cool:
And I've even been known to eat salad when the mercury on the thermometer gets high enough:
One of the most unifying things as we traveled across Europe this summer was the takeover of the Smurf movie. Everywhere we looked we could see blue. The weirdest thing about it, was despite Smurf being a made-up word, most countries seemed to enjoy making up their own word for small, blue creatures.
Czech totally wins.
They seemed to know it too, because in Prague they had so much love for their smous that they filled their old square with a giant blue ball and people, do you see them, dressed accordingly.
I feel that making a joke about being hungry in Hungary is pretty lame, but I really can't seem to help myself. So here are some pictures of me eating in Budapest.
Nestea is really delicious.
So is cake.
This is a giant plate of delicious meat. It's not as giant as the plate of meat we once had in Korea, but this one had really delicious potatoes too.
This is a castle that they built in 1898 for the World's Fair out of cardboard, and then everyone liked it so much they built it for real. This is a great tip we've picked up while traveling. People like to go to Europe for all their cute, old buildings, however a lot of them seem to have been built about 100 years ago, but no one really knows this, and everyone loves them anyway. So if you build something that looks old, in 100 years people will think it's really old.
This is an entrance to the world's oldest metro. It looks a lot like a normal metro, but older.
This is the ceiling of the basilica, which was finished in 1905. See what I mean?
This is me and the Parliament. I believe this building is actually old.
You can see it better here. Actually, I take back what I said because I googled it and it was completed in 1904. Could have fooled me. I thought it had been there forever.
For our anniversary Jordan got a new toy which let's him take pictures at night. I'm always up for a good pose.
We ate schnitzel.
This is the best sundae I've ever eaten. The magic ingredient (along with 4 kinds of ice cream and strawberries) was plain yogurt. Which is secretly perhaps the best ice cream topping.
This is coffee. I did not drink it. There is a traitor amongst us who sometimes acts like he likes coffee.
Vienna also has lots of nice architecture. I will prove this to you by posing with it.
After all that, somebody needed a bit more than a cup of coffee.
It was really cold the first day we were in Prague. See:
I am wearing all the clothes in my bag.
Also, sometimes the ceilings are rather low.
It's a colorful city with walls of grafitti
And rainbows sometimes too.
They have a house that dances
And the costumes of their palace guards were created by a Hollywood designer.
And they really have a lot of great views.
You may be wondering what else there is to do in Berlin besides ponder an invisible line. It turns out there is lots to do. This is what I did:
Shared a victory jump with Victory Column.
Posed with my umbrella.
Photo taken right before I took a bite out the chocolate Brandenburg Gate.
Tried to decide what Haribo flavor is most delicious. Decided they all were and bought them all. True Sauter!
Stood by a hippo.
Petted a goat.
Looked at a panda.
Kissed a fish.
Enjoyed dinner with a revolving view.
Visited giant historical building rebuilt inside a museum.
And drank a beer.
Despite the fact that it ended within my lifetime, it's quite hard for me to imagine the craziness of the Cold War. And it's not like I haven't experienced its after effects, traveling through Vietnam's once ravaged countryside and trying to imagine a worse place to have a war. I know there are terrains that are perhaps as unhospitable as the jungles of Vietnam, but of all the people I've met, I would definitely not want to fight against the Vietnamese. Or living in Korea and visiting the line that splits the North from the South; one of the last real remnants from the Cold War, a country so cut off from the rest of the world I can't imagine what life is like up there despite the fact that I lived amongst their brothers and sisters for two years.
And it's that experience that helps me imagine what I would have experienced if I had been in a position to understand what the fall of the Iron Curtain meant when I was four. I know if I woke up tomorrow and someone informed me that there had been a bloodless revolution overnight and the North Korean regime had fallen, I'd be shocked. And yet, North Korea is only one small country and despite it's posturing, I loose no sleep from fear of them blowing something up, even when I lived a few hundred miles from its border.
So when I visit places like the border between East and West Berlin I remember my trip to the DMZ between North and South Korea and imagine it bigger. And it's amazing what twenty years can do to something that seems so permanent, because unless I had Jordan spouting stories and facts at me about European history as we walk along its streets, I'd really have no idea. The biggest dilemma I faced while staying in (formerly) East Berlin was which bag of Haribo to buy.