Friday, July 24, 2015

Bratislava and Budapest

Before leaving the weeklong Esperanto class in Martin, Slovakia, I asked the organizer how many vegetarians had been in the group. It appeared that many people had been getting the vegetarian meals, which seemed unlikely, but the numbers confirmed it. Meat eaters were 34%, vegetarians were 58%, and vegans were 8%. I know that some people were just taking advantage of the opportunity to try out vegetarian eating, because a comment on the feedback board at the end expressed surprise at how easy it had been to go a week without meat. But I think it's safe to say that Esperantists have more than the normal share of vegetarians.

The train to Bratislava was another terrible one, with the corridors filled by people and luggage, and very hot; it was like being in a sauna for a few hours. But at least we had reserved seats. We had a few hours the next morning to see Bratislava, but I didn't find it at all appealing. Many buildings were crumbling or abandoned, it was colorless, even the section along the Danube seemed dreary, a lot of the streets were torn up by construction, and when I was lost at one point people were not at all anxious to help.

A groundskeeper shooed Les away when he started to walk on the grass. This iconic list of "no-nos" seemed to epitomize the unfriendly atmosphere of Bratislava.

Our train to Budapest was super—comfortable and not too hot. Like Prague, Budapest uses a currency different from the euro. Not having a clue about the exchange rate, we weren't sure how many forints to ask for from the ATM machine; we didn't want to end up with hundreds of dollars worth, only to have to exchange them back at the end at a bad rate. I decided to use the "pee ratio"; see how much it costs to use a bathroom at the train station and multiply by a hundred, in other words getting "a hundred pees" worth of currency. That worked out well, and we'll try it again when we get to Switzerland, another non-euro country.

We both enjoyed Budapest, despite temperatures reaching 100. A favorite was Matthias Church. I especially wanted to go there because of a description from Julie's trip there after high school graduation: "As we passed one of the churches, we heard a choir singing and went in. What I experienced there will stay with me for the rest of my life. The high arches and intricate stained glass windows were the most glorious sight I have ever seen. The acoustics in the church were indescribable...the music seemed to start even before the singers had opened their mouths and rang for seconds afterwards." Unfortunately there was no singing while we were there, but I could relish the other aspects that so pleased Julie. From there we tried to find where Julie had gone to school for four months in 1991; we're not sure we had the correct building, but at least we saw the area.

Matthias Church

We walked a lot, as usual, trying to be sure we were in our air-conditioned hotel during the hottest part of the day. I know that we missed most of the "must-see" tourist sights, but that's OK.

These sculpted shoes are a memorial to 60 Jews who were shot here in 1944 for refusing to go to concentration camps; they had to remove their valuable shoes first, and the bodies were dumped into the Danube.

We did a load of wash, and what a contrast to the laundromat in York, England! This one was bright, cheerful, roomy, and spotlessly clean, with even an appealing children's corner.

What a pleasure to do our laundry here!

Then came the day Les has been dreading for months: the time to fly on Wizz Air to Brussels. Les knew that Wizz Air is especially strict about luggage size and weight. We paid extra for carry-ons, but even that limited us each to 10 kilograms (22 pounds) in one suitcase, no extra purse or small bag. We spent a morning disposing of anything not crucial, and Les "hid" his heavy electronic gadgets in his rainjacket pockets, because Wizz Air does allow you to carry a coat. In the end, they never weighed the bags, just eyeballed them to be sure they were the right size.

Performing a toothpaste transfusion, moving it from the large tube to the smaller tube before discarding the large tube in our efforts to get below the Wizz Air permitted weight limit

We left the hotel, and thus began possibly the worst day so far on our trip. I knew we had to go to the end of the subway line to pick up a public bus to the airport, but I somehow chose the wrong direction, so we had to go back through 20 stops to get to the correct end. Then the bus driver wouldn't accept our metro ticket, contrary to what we'd been told, and we didn't have enough forints (because we purposely used up most of them) to buy a bus ticket. A kindhearted woman on the line sold us two spare tickets for euros.

When we got to the airport, it was so jammed with people, we could hardly force our way through the crowds to get to the gate area. At security our little children's scissors raised an alarm in the X-ray machine, but they let us keep them. (We'd already that morning, with great regret, thrown out the paring knife we bought in Scotland, which had been so useful.) Despite all the delays, we'd allowed for lots of time, so I wandered around, marveling that food prices were three times what they were in downtown Budapest (where we could get a fine vegan lunch for four dollars each). With the hot weather the last few weeks, my standard comparison in each city has become the price of a cold Coke.

Our plane was delayed half an hour due to thunderstorms for the incoming flights. We walked and walked to a warehouse-like area, separate from the main airport. We waited there a long time, then were led single-file to a row of planes. But, alas, our plane wasn't there, so then they herded us all back to the warehouse. No one offered an explanation, nor a guess as to whether we might be jammed in there for hours. There were about 20 seats for 180 people, so I found myself a place to sit on the concrete floor, which resulted in six large insect bites (I assume) on my neck that are still bothering me today.

Wizz Air's passenger holding area, better described as a warehouse

Eventually we got onto our plane, and the 2-hour flight to Brussels wasn't all that bad. Except that I was sitting far from Les, because we hadn't felt like paying extra for reserved seats and just took the random seats they gave us. When we reached Charleroi Airport, south of Brussels, we tried walking to our hotel, only half a mile away (hardly anything by our standards), but there were no sidewalks; eventually we gave up and paid $9 for a taxi for the short distance. We got to the hotel at 9pm, and I immediately fell asleep in my clothes, and didn't wake up until this morning.

Today was a lot better. We took the taxi back to the airport, where we hopped on a private shuttle bus to Lille. (Les says I should give the nod here to Flibco, which provided a comfortable and timely bus despite its dubious name.) To our great surprise, we found a group of Esperantists aboard, so it became like a 90-minute party. They were from Poland, eastern Hungary, and Canary Islands; like us, they all had flown in to Charleroi on their way to the Universala Kongreso in Lille.

We're just vegging out today, knowing that the weeklong Kongreso, which starts tomorrow, will be very hectic and filled with activities until late at night. We bought some needed items in Lille: a paring knife to replace the one we had to discard; steroid nasal spray for Les to try to alleviate his severe hayfever/cold (he doesn't know which); a cable to be able to listen to music from our computer playlist (ironically, almost every hotel has had a TV, which we've never turned on, and it just occurred to Les that with a stereo cable he'd be able to use our computer to play music through the TV's speakers).

In our spare time we've been reading a blog called The author has good advice about packing, products, and light travel in general.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Prague and Martin

Our trip from Leipzig to Prague didn't start well. After a change in Dresden, we found out that our reserved second-class car and one other car were not on the train, which was seriously overbooked anyway. As a result, people and suitcases were spread through the aisles. We ran quickly to first class and snabbed the last unreserved seats in a compartment, so we didn't have to join the throng standing and sitting in the corridors for the two-plus hour ride. (The Israeli man across from us joked that it looked like a train in India.) Les was prepared to fight for our seats if the conductor would admonish us for being in first-class, but nobody ever came.

We avoided the fate of many: two hours crowded in the aisles.
On the positive side, the train followed the Elbe River through Saxony Switzerland national park, giving beautiful views. About a week after we had that 3-hour train delay in Toronto, we got an e-mail from VIA Rail Canada offering us, as compensation, half off the price of a future train trip. Ha ha, we're wondering when the rail company here will send even an apology for removing the car with our reserved seats (which you pay extra for).

We spent three nights in Prague, and felt like we could easily have enjoyed another few. We loved most everything about the city: handsome buildings, interesting neighborhoods, good transportation, inexpensive prices, multitude of vegan restaurants, not too many tourists, etc. There were many Segway rental shops, and loads of Segways in the squares and streets.

The John Lennon wall is a popular attraction in Prague.
Les liked Prague so much that he was saying that it was among his three favorite cities so far on the trip. But then, when he tried to list his favorites, there were at least five or six, so he gave up trying.

View of the castle in Prague from a yummy vegan restaurant
We still run into surprises. A few times now we've had bathtubs with a removable showerhead, but no shower curtain, making me grip the head carefully so that a bad turn of the wrist doesn't soak the room. Another surprise since arriving in continental Europe is that 99 percent of the T-shirts people wear are in English. And on some of the roads in Slovakia there were so many billboards, I could hardly believe it: every hundred feet, meaning about fifty billboards per mile, with some firms advertising on every fifth one or so.

We left Prague on our "Bergfest" day. That's a term we learned from Anita, which signifies the middle of a project or workweek or whatever. It was day 67 out of 134. It was kind of fitting to be getting to the farthest place geographically on that day: Martin in Slovakia. We're here to participate in SES (Somera Esperanto Studado), a 9-day Esperanto class that's held every year in Slovakia. Many of the people who come have learned Esperanto through on the Internet; sometimes this is their first chance to speak face-to-face with others.

Our train from Prague, supposed to take five hours, was so late to Žilina that we needed to quickly jump to our next train. But nobody spoke English and we couldn't tell which platform to go to, or even how to exit from the platform we were on. We ended up on a different train than intended, but fortunately a young woman spoke some English and told us how to recover.

When we got to the dormitories for SES, it wasn't reassuring to hear "The elevators are over there, but sometimes they don't work." This is for a 10-story building! Indeed, I get the impression that the dorm was built with cheap materials in the 1960s, and has never had any improvements since then. One example: in the shared bathroom, instead of towel racks or hooks, there's a cord hanging between two vertical pipes. There's no way to close the doors without making a slamming sound, so there's a constant barrage of bangs. Speaking of doors, this is the only place I've been where you could be accidentally locked inside the room. Worst of all, the Internet didn't work in our room for the first two days, and Les had to be very aggressive to find the help he needed to get it working; for sure, Les isn't a happy camper when he doesn't have the Internet.

Improvised hooks on the door of our dormitory room in Slovakia
Another strange thing in Slovakia. We each had to fill in a form for the police with date of birth, passport number, where you're staying, etc. It had to be all in capital letters. I mistakenly put my first name without all caps, then crossed it out and did it the desired way. But no! The volunteer said that the police were very fussy, she'd fill in a new form herself. In the end, both my form and Les' were done three times before they were good enough to pass muster with the police! And during one of our bus excursions the leader asked us for identification that would show that we're old enough for the senior rate at the castle; when Les explained that he'd left our passports, drivers licenses, all identification back at the dorm, the leader was aghast that we'd travel in Slovakia without any identifying papers.

We met interesting people from many countries—mostly Europe, but also Australia and East Timor. There were 190 participants from 25 countries, and the 12 instructors were each from a different country.

View from Strečno Castle near Žilina
We spent four hours each day in classes. Our teacher was wonderful, and changed activities often enough that Les, who has a short attention span, did fine. Les and I each gave a short talk in class; it's funny, because usually the idea of public speaking terrifies me, but in Esperanto it only causes a slight amount of anxiety. Les' goal for the week was to lose his American accent. Toward the end of the week a Polish woman, after chatting awhile, asked him whether he was Italian—it really made his day!

Les and I each gave a talk in our class.
We signed up for three half-day bus excursions and one full-day one. We went to the national open air museum, a zoo, several towns, and three different castles. In each castle we had a 2-hour tour, and went 300 to 400 steps up, and the same number down—whew! On one excursion I was excited to pass a large nest with two storks in it; the Europeans around me were "ho hum, we see stork nests all the time."

Bojnice Castle
Afternoons were filled with talks by various participants and instructors. I gave a slide show about living on a houseboat, and also led a session of a particular word game. (Much to my surprise, one of the organizers later handed me ten euros for my contribution to the program—ha ha, who says that you can't earn money through Esperanto?—which I then put into the donation box.)

Esperanto draws a lot of professional linguists, and one of them gave a talk about how to distinguish the writing of various European languages. The projector showed the first sentence of the International Bill of Rights in 40 languages, one at a time. We had a few seconds to write down our guess as to the language, then he revealed which it was, and how the writing is different from any other language (perhaps both the "a" and the "o" can have a certain accent mark). Then he'd ask if somebody in the audience would read the paragraph, and usually there was a volunteer (for Catalan, or Albanian, or Macedonian, or whatever); but if not, then the instructor would read it himself—imagine being able to correctly pronounce 40 languages. As a bonus, I learned that Norwegian has two official written standards.

One evening people shared typical foods from their countries.
It was apparent that SES is geared toward the younger crowd when we saw the evening activities always went past midnight—long after Les and I had gone to bed. There were many rock bands, loved by the teens and 20-ish crowd, but our favorite evening event was a harp concert by a talented participant.

Despite the sub-par dorm experience, we can't complain at all about the price. For 8 nights stay, all meals, 25 hours of expert instruction, four bus excursions including admission fees, evening entertainment by various groups, the total for the two of us was about $700—quite the deal. This has been the longest stay in one place on our trip so far. Les, with his love of lists, has kept track of every place we've stayed this year, and it's 42 for me and 41 for him (he didn't come to Merida with me in January).

Our class (one of 12) showing off our diplomas; Tim, our instructor, is the one without a diploma.
Les has been bothered by hay fever since we arrived in England. It's been especially bad here in Martin, maybe because of the hay fields behind the dorm. (But they certainly are pretty to look at.)

Tomorrow, after the final classes, we're taking the train to Bratislava, and the following day to Budapest. Stay tuned...

Tuesday, July 7, 2015


The last time I wrote, we had just gotten to Hanover, which we chose because it seemed like there wasn't much there to distract us from getting caught up on future plans. Well, we did have enough computer time, but Hanover fooled us by being quite appealing.

From Hanover we went to Herzberg, a small town in the foothills of the Harz mountains. We'd learned a few years ago about this place which calls itself "The Esperanto City", and it was actually quite interesting in that regard. Signs to various attractions are in both German and Esperanto; the names of trees around the lake are posted in German, Latin, and Esperanto; there's a big statue of Zamenhof, the founder of Esperanto, next to the post office, with a large Esperanto flag next to it constantly flying; some of the proprietors, such as at a Korean teahouse we ate at, speak Esperanto. The Esperanto Center has one copy of each of thousands of books, plus scads of magazines, similar to a Library of Congress.

The Esperanto Center in Herzberg has a full set of flags to greet visitors, and they flew the US flag in our honor.
Through Pasporta Servo, Petro, the man responsible for most of these features, put us up at an apartment donated by the city for visiting Esperanto volunteers. Our housemates were a man our age from southern Germany and a young fellow from Korea, both helping out at the Esperanto Center for a few weeks. The apartment had a kitchen, and it was nice to be able to do a bit of cooking, even if in a minimalist way. We had some good talks with Petro about the current state of affairs in Herzberg and Germany. One day he took us to a nearby town in the national park, to have lunch at a hotel run by Esperanto speakers. A lot of Esperantists are drawn there, and we spoke with one from Lyons, France; he was on his way to Copenhagen, where—by chance—he planned to stay with the same woman who's offered us accommodations there in September. Malgranda mondo (small world)!

Next we went to Berlin, where we stayed with Dennis and his wife and two young children. They live in a 6th floor penthouse with a nice view over the city. We spent an entire day seeing various parts of Berlin by foot and—using an all-day transit pass—by bus, tram, U-bahn, and S-bahn (always SRO on the last two). We saw the Brandenburg Gate, Tiergarten Park, Kurfürstendamm, the Holocaust memorial, a comprehensive exhibit about the Berlin Wall, and several less touristy parts of the city. Berlin didn't actually appeal to us very much—too gritty, too much graffiti, and definitely too much smoking. We decided that what we like in a city is: clean, no graffiti, no smoking, calm traffic, no honking, public transportation, locals seem happy, no tourists, vegan pubs, buskers, a lot of flowers or other color. One thing I did like in Berlin was all the families on bikes; even 3-year-olds confidently ride their bikes across busy intersections on the green light.

The Meine-Deine game
We enjoyed Dennis' children. The 2½ year old liked playing a game with Les, swapping his own cap and Les' cap back and forth, each time saying "Meine ... deine". He enlisted me to help play with a favorite train; he was always grabbing my wrist while insisting that I "Komm mit!" I'm always interested in features of the education system in other countries, and I learned that in Berlin it's typical for children to start all-day "kindergarten" (what we would call daycare or nursery school) at age one or two. It's thought to be good for them, more stimulating than being at home; I can understand that—no harried mother setting them in front of a TV in order to do the wash or prepare dinner.

We next headed to Leipzig for five days, which we'd been looking forward to for many months, because our dear friends live there. The original contact was Annelore, Les' first Esperanto penpal, and he visited them in 1988, 1989 (with Julie), and 1990. Annelore and her son visited us in Seattle soon after the fall of the Berlin Wall (a dream none of us had believed possible), and her daughter Anita lived with us for a few months while doing an internship at Fred Hutch, and has since visited with her two children. I finally got to Leipzig for the first time two years ago, so I already knew that our stay there would be like being at home in the midst of our long trip (we're almost at the halfway point).

Anita keeps track of the time in Leipzig, Seattle, and the town where her brother lives in Australia.
This is the 1000-year anniversary for Leipzig, so an exciting time to be here. We saw some interesting things: a huge exhibit on the history of the former East Germany, an exhibit about the Jews of Leipzig (part of Jewish Week), the new Metro. But mostly we enjoyed bountiful meals with Anita's family, starting with breakfasts each day of rolls, many kinds of cheese, tomatoes, Nutella, etc. One day the extended family gathered in Annelore and Werner's garden in nearby Wölkau, a fun time centered around even more eating, until we had to halt because of a thunderstorm. This was actually a relief because the temperature had been 95 that day. Conversations with the large group are interesting, because each person speaks varying degrees of English, German, and Esperanto, so there's a lot of side translating. We went with Annelore to the monthly Leipzig Esperanto meeting, and watched her weekly round dance class.

One evening we were concerned about a planned anti-Islam demonstration, which is apparently a regular occurrence that also brings out an anti-protest group as well as scads of police, clogging traffic around Anita's downtown home. But—perhaps because of the heat—only a small group showed up this time.

While biking in Bruges, my shoes got some grease on them. Anita and Werner (both doctors) cleaned up my shoe with ether in Werner's clinic (part of his house).
One day we took the train to Dresden for a few hours. Unfortunately, the 95-degree weather prevented us from enjoying it as much as we should have. On the trip down, we noticed a tourist steam train in Radebeul, so of course Les had to stop there on the way home to check it out. We spent two hours exploring this nice town.

Julie and Anita had been special friends, and Julie was also much beloved by Annelore; consequently her name came up very often, and we all felt like she was with us during our stay in Leipzig.

While we were in Berlin, Les' server at the boat stopped working. We'd gotten rid of all responsibilities, except for this one. It wasn't a major disaster, just a slight inconvenience for some of the people who use Les' Morse code program. With the help of our boat neighbor Dick, Les was able to diagnose the problem (a tripped GFI breaker) and fix it from afar.

We sent our second package home, this time a whopping six pounds. With weather in the 90s it was time to bag the long underwear, hat, gloves, and other warmish clothing. And some things that seemed like good ideas in Seattle turned out to be unnecessary. For instance, I never once used my little reading lamp because my Kindle has a built-in light. Live and learn.

We've had a good time in Germany. Tomorrow we take the train to Prague for a few days, and then to Martin in Slovakia. We're going to miss our "home away from home" in Leipzig.