Saturday, September 19, 2009

Actually, You Forgot Poland

This continent is tiny. I'm used to going through big places where people explain to me that in this region or that region, the people are so distinctive that they could make their own country. Well, in Europe, they went and did it. If I'd wanted, I could have hopped on a bus in St. Petersburg and gotten off late the next day in Munich. I'm used to covering that distance in a bus. I'm not used having that mean I'd cross through four or five different countries without stopping. There are so many distinctive places packed into such a small area, feeling like you actually know a place becomes near impossible.

My problem with Europe is that I still haven't found a place in it that I don't want to check out. I've spent the last year meeting other travelers, at least half of them from Europe, all of whom will tell me all about where they're from. Am I going there? Sure! Of Course! I'd love to see them in Scotland/Italy/Austria/Portugal/Switzerland/WhereverelsetheysayIneedtosee! I've heard so much and it sounds amazing!

So I'm covering the same distance at the same pace as usual, but I'm passing through a lot more countries, each with their own languages and cultures. It feels like trying to have a coherent conversation with a multiple-personality-disorder case. In one 24 hour period I start at one in the morning seeing a horde of Russians swarm a duty-free shop and refuse to budge there until someone is rousted out of bed to sell them their vodka. At dawn, I pull into a bus station in Estonia, and wander the streets of cobblestone old town. Midday I'm in a modern shopping mall, looking for shirts. That evening I end up in a wine bar in Latvia, listening to a live band while somebody plays the original Super Mario Bros. on an NES in a corner. That's one day.

After hunting for 16th Century cave graffiti (carved coats of arms left by bored hunters) scarfing loads of Blinis and sour cream, I headed to Germany. I wanted to see Poland, but I ran out of time for this pass, because I'd forced myself to slow down in the Baltic states enough so that I could actually see something in all of them. All I saw of Poland this time through was the inside of the Warsaw central train station. It has WC signs that don't point to a WC, hotel signs that point away from hotels, an information booth that couldn't give information, and ticket windows that couldn't sell tickets. Gee guys, wonder which side of the iron curtain you were on.

After bargaining passage with a train conductor at midnight and short 5am scare where it had looked like we overshot my station by a few hundred km (Quick tip: the town of "Frankfurt (Oder)" is on the other side of the country from the city of Frankfurt), I got to Berlin. Never before have I been to a city where underpopulation is a problem. The streets do feel a bit empty sometimes. One guy explained it as a city built for 5 million, currently populated by 3 million. It doesn't look it, but it's one of the poorest cities in Western Europe. I was told unemployment is getting to 20%. Squatting on empty lots is legal as long is it's open to the public.

Every place has history of some kind but this is a town where you can practically feel it pulsing in the cobblestones. The Memorial to Murdered Jews of Europe in the center of town is just down the street from the Brandenburg gate and the commemorative brick line in the ground from where the Berlin wall once stood, all in view from the open glass dome of the new Reichstag. Some parts of the wall still stand today because of the artwork on them. As I write, the original artists are doing restoration work on their pieces. In fact, the arts in general here are doing very well. There's a pulsing music scene I only just grazed the surface of in town, and I'd love to see more.

Now, after lots of currywurst, several museum visits, and peek backstage in the biggest stage in Europe (thanks to the resident mezzo soloist with the Duetsche Oper Berlin and her hyperactive 8-month old puppy), I am headed to another party. I'm writing this from the autobahn, sitting in the middle of the back seat of a VW Golf with four gears. We're headed to Munich. When we arrive, I'm meeting up with a good friend from college to see this annual event they have in town. It involves beer. Maybe you've heard of it?

Check out this entry's Photos.


  1. how could you neglect to visit my homeland?!?!?! well, i still haven't been to poland either so maybe that will be my next adventure and i'll have something to tell you about that you haven't yet experienced ;)

  2. Sorry, I've got a ton of other Polish American friends who are also frothing at the mouth right now, but it finally came down between their fatherland and my own. My land won this time. Next time I cross back east (which might happen twice) we'll see what happens.

  3. Hey Joel, I had no idea you'd be traveling so fast. We are in Bologna for the week (Julia gives a paper on Thursday). Emily and I are going to Florence for 24 hours tomorrow, then back here to see more of this amazing city. We fly to Brussels on Sunday (sept 27) for 36 hours there with friends then back to Chicago at 11am on the 29th. Will we cross paths?


  4. Did you die of alcohol poisoning?

    But seriously, cool! You skipped my homelands too (Ukraine, Lithuania) but hey, nobody's perfect. Europe is very much what you describe, if you try to go at your pace. Do you think you'll keep it up?

  5. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  6. Eric- Hope this works, I'll be in Brussels, and withany luck I'll see you all there, exactly a year since I left your house for Mexico!

    Count C-
    Not quite. And actually I did spend a couple days in Vilnius, Lithuania. The insane pace is made so that I can meet people I promised to meet a long time ago at the dates they come. After I'm done with that, I'll probably be anxious to move on, but not THAT anxious.

    Delly News Blog- Thanks for the compliment, but I don't appreciate having my blog's comment roll filled with several dozen advertising links. If you'd like to promote your own site, that's okay, but I consider a list of 30+ unrelated links like that to be spam.

  7. Por supuesto que si! la gran fiesta del Oktoberfest...Wunderbar!...Hola, Joel...que tal te parece Munich?...cuando estuve leyendo tu blog, pues se me vinieron muchos recuerdos cuando tomaba el U-Bahn...extrano Alemania, especialmente Munich...que tal festejaste esa gran fiesta?...e cuento que ya tengo trabajo, tendre mi orientacion hasta este martes, y el viernes empiezo a trabajar...ya me siento mejor...solo ruego al Senor Santisimo que todo salga buien, estare cuidando anciano en un toco el turno de noche...ya me estoy acostumbrando, gracias a estos dias de orientacion..ok, saludos departe de toda mi familia y mios tambien :)...Que te diviertas en Munich...y disfruta de los musicos a lo largo de Marienplatz...y de la misa en la iglesia "Die Frauenkirche", hay muchos Biergarten...jejjeje que cerveza te gusto mas?...jejejej, si que estoy preguntona...ok, saludos...chao

  8. Karen, Bill and Christina ForbesSeptember 28, 2009 at 9:37 PM

    HI Joel,
    Glad you got to Oktoberfest with your friend. Safety in numbers. It is a fun event, although rough on the liver. Christina is going to housesit for your cats while your parents are visiting you.
    Europe is a rich place to visit and to fully embrace the heritage of many people here.
    Happy One Year Anniversary. How time flies when you are having fun!!!
    Karen, Bill and Christina