Monday, August 23, 2010

Warsaw - Ostro Mazowecki - Bialystok - Augustow - Sulwalki - Marijampole - Kaunas - Panevezys - Riga

I am in a coffee shop in downtown Riga. Raitis is chatting like mad on his cell and I'm jittery with my second cappuccino. Ilsa is sitting with her baby and glowing as she breast feeds. They are in a three way Latvian conversation, catching up on all the gossip within their circle while I tap away at the keyboard.

Yesterday I came from Warsaw by bus. I gave up on the train. I would have had to catch a train to Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania and that would have been OK. I could have spent the night there and it would also be nice to check out this city. But from there to get to Riga I would have had to take a train to Rezekne. This is this several hundred km further east, way out of the way. For historical geo-political reasons, all of the Riga trains are oriented to Moscow. But why the Politburo never built a connection to Vilnius is a mystery. This train arrives in Resneke at 10pm. The connection to Riga comes at 4am. I would have had to spend the midnight hours in a train station with a name that sounds like a cheap peach brandy. I chickened out.

The train from Berlin to Warsaw is quite decent. I was a little concerned that DB only gave me 7 minutes to make the connection. But the train arrives at both Berlin West and minutes later at Berlin East on a parallel track. The German train right on time. The Polish one a little later.

For some reason I could not fathom the seat numbering system on the Polish train They ran 21 23, 34 37, 42 45 or something like that. They were not 0dd-even, sequential or even possibly Fibonaccian. It made no sense even if I took into account the opposite aisle. I asked a young Polish girl and she laughed. "That's Poland." I ducked into an empty first class cabin and remained there until I kicked back to second class somewhere near the German boarder.

When I booked my train from Frankfurt to Warsaw DB gave me the option of a room at a five star hotel for only 70 Euro per night. The place looked spectacular and had great reviews. I went for it. Train stations in even the best cities attract a certain kind of smashed face scum that would give anybody pause. I was also nervous about the cab drivers and a concerned gentleman on the Warsaw train had warned me about them. It proved unfounded. While the Warsaw Centrala itself was grim I found a friendly face who helped me find a cab. The driver was so nice he wouldn't take my fare. With hand signs and pen and paper he signaled to me that the hotel was only 200 meters away and within easy walking distance. When I got there I was so impressed I immediately booked another night. See. The only thing that sucks about expensive hotels is that they are expensive. Once that is removed from the equation they are fabulous. Besides, I had been on the road for a few days and it was time for a tune up.

The window in my hotel room was gigantic. It had a panoramic view of Warsaw. Directly across the street was the Palace of Culture. It is kind of a cross between The Empire State Building and Big Ben. It was so intriguing that I asked the concierge about it. He told me that The Palace of Culture was a gift from Stalin. He said that Moscow had seven such palaces. He seemed disappointed. I said that Saddam Hussein built 22 palaces in Baghdad so count yourself lucky you only got one. Then he smiled mischievously.

The website for booking a bus to Riga was impenetrable. But the concierge figured the whole thing out for me. He successfully navigated it and booked me a trip by bus that wound wind it's way through Poland, Lithuania and Latvia.

The next morning I decided it would be pretty sorry to spend the day entirely at the hotel and not even try to see the city. The concierge illuminated a map for me in yellow highlighter for a two hour walking tour. It included the old town of Warsaw which looks like it was designed by the firm of Hansel and Gretel. I spent the entire day blissfully walking around the city.

He had also mentioned that there would be a race downtown. I imagined a March of Dimes event, geriatrics wearing pink t-shirts and lots of balloons. But it was not. It was Formulae One racers roaring through the streets. This would never happen in New York. When it comes to public danger we are a nation of pussies. I picked out a nice spot just beyond a bend where there was a possibility of things going tragically wrong.

That evening I could not resist seeing a film at the Technika Multipex in The Palace of Culture. No expense was spared on materials inside this place. There are enormous chandeliers and grand staircases made with thick oak planks. Huge velvet curtains robed every window and entrance. I chose The Doors documentary , with Polish sub-titles.

After the movie I went to the other side of the complex where there was this cosmonaut style disco. It featured a pulsating light panel floor that encircled a fountain. I knew nobody was going to be dancing at ten pm but I had a plan. I would just dance by myself for an hour or so and then head to the hotel. I had to get up at 5am to make my bus.

I was getting my groove on, doing some nice salsa steps, mixed with hip-hop and disco and a touch of modern dance. The patrons were horrified. Finally a gigantic bouncer with a shaved head grabbed me and ushered me off the floor. "Too much alcohol. I know." he said. "No, I'm just dancing." He was mystified. I turned around and walked out.

I passed the holiday in and there was thumping music coming from the second floor. I could see the shadows of dancers in the multi-colored light bouncing off the window. I would crash it. It was a wedding. I congratulated the bride as I passed her sipping champagne, just outside the dance floor. As I reached the entrance a rather plain girl, dancing by herself, invited me to join her. I did. I spun her around for two or three minutes when another shaven headed bouncer grabbed me. The girl intervened and he turned began shouting at her. Again I walked out.

As I left I passed a group of young women wearing sparkling red devil horns. One of them approached me gesturing and talking in Polish but I had no idea what she was going on about. Down the block I passed another group of women with the same head gear. This time the leader spoke English. She insisted that I kiss her friend. They encircled us while she sweetly kissed me on the cheek. This brought on a round of hysterical laughter.

Friends cautioned me that the Warsaw women are not very beautiful. I disagree. There is great beauty that is distinctly Polish. The classic oval face. The fair complexion. Tiny but full lips. Brightly lit blue and brown eyes. But there are two things they should know. Never wear high heels and blue jeans. Just don't. Especially with a huge belt buckle. Also, there should be a five year moratorium on use of all hair coloring products. It's time to reassess.

I left for the bus at 5:30am giving myself ample time for confusion. This was wise. The cab driver brought me to Warsaw East not West even though I thought I had made that clear. I had to first find out what was wrong then jump in a cab and race across town. Fortunately I made it with 5 or so minutes to spare. The bus was filled with Russians. It must be part of a migration route for Russians working in Germany. It starts in Bern, Switzerland and winds it's way through Germany and Lithuania before ending up in Riga. There it stops and the tribes split for destinations north to Moscow and St. Petersburg. It takes days to make the full journey. They had a video player on board with two screens. We were treated to an endless Moscow meets Vegas style musical review. The acts ran the gamut from tragi-pop to hip hop. This was followed by a mini-series soviet generational epic.

Note to Russian rappers: knit hat so obviously made by your babushka is lame.

There was a menu with not completely horrible food. There was a bathroom that didn't reek and there was toilet paper. We stopped every hour for a bathroom break. I did yoga on the periphery while almost everybody else smoked cigarettes. I saw the great flat expanse of Poland and the ruined cities that still have not recovered from Nazi and Soviet occupation. I can confirm that Coke and McDonalds are indeed everywhere.

At around six pm, one hour early, I arrived in Riga.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Grecian Odyssey

I am now in Ermoupolis. The city of Hermes.

It is filled with slender windy streets lined with old mansions. At some point in history somebody sprang for marble roadways. The plazas are lined with cafes and palm trees. There are cement docks off the rocks below and in the morning you can see the old timers bobbing in the clear Aegean.

I am staying in a 200 year old place called Ipatia Guesthouse. It reminds me of The Harlem Flophouse. No air-con, phones or tv, just high ceilings, huge windows, a chandelier and a whirring fan at the foot of my cast iron bed. Oh and wi-fi.

I spent the last week in Kythnos. I was with friends of Maria Elena. She passed me off to my new hosts. I was in the fancy pants Yachting town of Louitra. The hotel was a little expensive but it is high season and there are only a limited number of rooms in this little village. What is nice about it, and has been my experience everywhere in Greece so far, is that even in a little town there will be a main square jammed with cafes and restaurants. Social life includes everybody not just the mating -agers and at 1 am you will still see little old ladies and men on their wooden chairs, talking and smoking, and children running the streets.

There is a dive center in Kythnos. The dive captain is in a wheelchair, due to a motorcycle accident I am told. When there is a dive they make a little parade in their wet suits down the main street. The captain rolling along in front. One evening I went on a night dive. Myself and the other diver Stan, were bare chested our suits hanging at our waist as we made the walk of honor. Because it was night time a little throng of town-folk followed us to old stone bridge at the end of the harbor. They wanted to watch us plunge into the murky waters. Among the others were a group of dirty kids, two little old ladies in house dresses and slippers, a man with a straw hat and a cane and pregnant girl holding a baby. Stan and I were helping each other on with our weight belts, checking our mask, fins, pressure gages, hoses and the like when somebody yelled out "Not even a bride takes so long to get ready."

As in Kea, the preceding island, every day we went to a different beach. I asked Spentzos why this was, every one seemed great to me. He went over the criteria. There has to be shade. The water clear, the beach clean. And most important... there has to be NO people. Whenever we approached a beach descending a dusty rocky road from on up high, if there was even one person, with an umbrella tied to rocks, he would sigh in exasperation. I told him that in NYC if there are fewer than 25 people that counts as nobody showing up. He laughed. There must be thousands of beaches in Kythnos alone so his quest is a life long one.

Every day has also included a new taverna. Each one with its own specialties. We eat late at night ordering numerous plates for the table. Everyone diving in everywhere. There is always a loaf of freshly baked bread. Thankfully also this usually includes pureed fava with fresh green onion sprinkled on top, a plate of warm sun ripened melon, and a spinach like green called horta served with wedges of fresh lemon. There have been tasty empanadas filled with eggplant or capers or cheese with fresh mint, baked stuffed eggplant and tomatoes (just like my mama Thanos claimed) and smoky charcoal grilled pork chops.

Tomorrow I will take the boat to Riraeus and from Athens and then fly to Frankfurt. On Friday I will take the train to Warsaw and spend a night there. Then, according to the rail map, I go to Kaunas in Lithuania connecting to Riga.