Thursday, October 29, 2009

Night Walking Europe

Five pm. The days are getting shorter, and Verona is already starting to get a little dark. Walking past the Roman arena and past the tourist shopping streets, I get to the back streets. It sounds crazy, but it really feels like Romeo and Juliet happened here. I feel like I'm walking through the streets of somebody's adventure behind closed doors. I can feel something happening behind these quiet corners. There's a plot afoot if I can spot it at the right time next to the river, in the darkened cathedral, down the alleyways and behind the simple, old painted doors. Maybe I'm already part of it.

Six pm. The sun is setting. I've seen a lot of sunsets, but this one over lake Bled, Slovenia, is one of the best. The sky is a cloudless, vivid magenta against misty blue mountains and the castle in the hills up above. The lake is calm, aside from the swans and ducks circling closer for a chance at the dinner I brought with me.

Seven pm. I'm early. Aperativo happy hour doesn't start for another half an hour, and even I know that in a place as fashionable as Milan, being early gets you nowhere. So I head past the massive designer shops with billboard sized quietly  of models doing things you only do if paid very well, and head into a park, watching the people and singing to myself to stay entertained. Soon it's buy one drink, get a free dinner buffet, and I've got about ten people who are coming to share it with. But not early.

Eight pm. Venice is a completely different animal at night from how it was in the day. We get lost. That's what you do here. In some ways, it's the best part. We wander past cracked and dirty facades that would be repulsive anywhere else, but here over moonlit canals and bridges are all nighttime charm and age. After the churches and past the gondalas, we find the square we were looking for and head towards the four glasses of fragolino strawberry wine, one for each of us, and the best thin pizza we've ever had in our lives.

Nine pm. Sometimes I wonder why I spend so much time just walking around. That's all it is when you think about it. Walking around. Ten pm. No purpose, nothing in mind. Sometimes I'll have a mission, but more often than not, I'll have a night where all I do is walk. Eleven pm. I realize why. All I have to do is look up. I am in Zagreb, Croatia. It's getting cold, and I'm leaving the bars behind. Just the old Austro-Hungarian facades air and smell of the Balkans. And salsa music.

...salsa music?

The doorman makes a move as if to stop me, then smiles and waves me in. The latin music is pounding, several continents out of place. The low-ceilinged basement is lines with dancers. I haven't done this in a long time.

But the room is full of men. I need a partner. I go out to go back to my hostel, where I know I can find one. I don't know yet that by the time the two of us arrive, the place will have closed its doors, and we'll end up at basement bar sipping local beer and listening to a completely different tune, but it doesn't really matter, we still have a good time. Besides, what it comes down to, for me, was just another walk at night.

Check out this entry's Photos.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Travel Tip: Handling Border Crossings

Crossing the border between two countries is a little like a dental checkup. If you've been good, it's uneventful and relatively painless, but you never hear anyone saying "well golly gee, that sure was fun, let's do it again!"

What I am about to describe is what will get you through some of the most obnoxious border crossings in the world. Most border crossings will not be this bad. So don't let the rest of this entry scare you.

There are two kinds of obstacles you will face when going from one country into another: official hassle, and unofficial hassle. Official hassle can include legal entry requirements, border guards, health inspections, and customs. Unofficial hassle can include transport to and from the border, transport across the border, money changers, and other assorted (un)helpful characters looking to either run a genuine business with international travelers, or simply make a fast buck off of people who don't know the frontier.

For both kinds, the best way to avoid it all is to do your homework and find out where the best border crossing for you lies. Occasionally you can save yourself money and stress (plus get prettier views) just by asking around and reading your guidebook. After you've got a favorite crossing, get the specifics on it. If possible, you want to know the hours of operation, each of the administrative fees you need to pay, and the approximate price of transport to, across, and from the border. If there is a particularly notorious scam for this crossing (for example fake officials claiming to sell "required medical insurance" to uninsured travelers from China to Mongolia), you'll want to know that in advance as well, and how to avoid it. Finally check how easy or hard it will be to change your cash from one country's currency to the other once you get across the border. If it looks really hard, consider changing to Dollars, Pounds, or Euros before crossing, or just spending it on food or other supplies before you leave (leaving enough for fees and transport costs). I know this sounds like a lot written down, but once you're actually looking it all up, it won't take that long.

Once you've chosen your border crossing, double check entry and exit requirements online and make sure you have everything else you need to get across the border according to your state department/foreign ministry (more on this in an upcoming post on visas).

After you're armed with information and (if you need it) paperwork, catch your bus, train, boat, plane, or whatever it is that's going to get you to the crossing.

We'll start with unofficial hassle. This is more of concern in poorer countries with less infrastructure and more lax law enforcement.

First is getting there. Get public transport. If the cost isn't posted, watch how much a local pays, or ask two other passengers on board, then pay that amount, making sure you get your change. Know whether your transport gets you to the border, or across it and into a new town (more expensive, but often faster and much more convenient).

Second is money. You will likely get offers to change cash on the street. Do not do this under any circumstances unless you have absolutely no way of avoiding it. I don't care how "official" they are or what badges they flash at you. Some of these people are honest. But many will either try to pull a fast one on you with the exchange rate, and/or hand you counterfeit bills. Just because you've caught them doing one of these things doesn't mean they're not doing the other as well. Find someone who has a rate written up on a sign and is seated in an office or something similar that can't just disappear in the next 30 minutes if you find out you've been ripped off.

Next is getting to the exit station, where you'll get your passport stamped with (surprise) an exit stamp. Know the fees-- if any official tries to ask for a higher fee, gently correct them, and/or ask for a receipt. This is usually enough to set them straight. We'll cover more of this in "official hassle." Double check to make sure your passport has actually been stamped

At this point you'll find some space of no man's land. Sometimes this can be crossed on foot. If you've paid for transport to the next town, you can usually just get back onto the bus at this point. If you can't do it on foot, try to share transport and push past the oh-so-friendly taxi drivers and touts offering, in English, a private ride (unless they're really the only deal in town). Ignore similar friendly strangers offering to help you across the border, as they almost always ask for a fee for guiding you down ten feet of obvious well-trodden paths and make trouble if you don't pay them.

Next is the entry station for the new country. Same process as with the exit one. Once again, double-check that your passport has been stamped, and this time make sure the date is accurate. This is important. If it's not obvious how long you're allowed to stay in the country for, ask.

Finally there's getting away from the border. If you paid for transport all the way, just get back on board. Otherwise, ignore the touts, and follow the locals to the bus stop, train station, or whatever the way onwards is (which you'll know already from having done your homework).

Now that we've covered all that, let's work on official hassle. There isn't much of this in the developing world, but you'll find a lot more of it in modern, developed nations.

The most major source of official hassle is getting a visa. This won't actually come up that often, but when it does, it takes work. I'll tell you more in my next tip post. For now, we'll concentrate on the actual border crossing.

This starts with the exit station. Here you will be handed a departure form of some kind, and possibly a customs form. These are usually very easy: name, date, sex, passport number, expiration date, occupation, and signature is usually all you need. Exit fees are rare as long as you haven't overstayed your visa or entrance limits. Once you have your exit stamp, move on.

The next part if the entrance immigration post. You will usually be given three forms: an entrance form (this will be a visa form if you're supposed to get one at the border), a customs form, and a health questionnaire. Answer everything on the entrance form as honestly as possible. It will be similar to the exit form, but with a few extra questions about your length of stay (exaggerate to at least 30 days unless you now you aren't legally allowed to), purpose of travel (unless you'll be working a paid job, always put tourism-- I've heard of "volunteers" being thrown back onto planes in some African countries) and your contact info and address in the country ("backpacker hostel" and then the city name is usually enough, but the name, address, and phone number out of a randomly chosen hotel in your guidebook is just about guaranteed to work). Aside from the length and contact, fill in everything as truthfully as you can. If you don't know the answer to a question, leave it blank. If they really need an answer, they'll ask for it.

Next is the customs form. If you're a backpacker, the most you'll usually have to declare is the cash you're carrying, and often you won't even need to do that. Just read the form carefully and answer according to your own judgment. If in doubt, honesty is the best policy. Just because you declare something doesn't mean you'll be charged anything for it, but if you're caught not declaring something you should declare, you can be fined, lose the item, or even arrested in extreme cases.

Finally there's the heath questionnaire. Hypochondriacs beware, this is not the time to report the itchiness of your throat or slight upset stomach you just started feeling a couple minutes ago. You will be asked if you have experienced a list of certain symptoms within the last few days like fever, dizziness, diarrhea, etc. Unless you have had one of these things to such an extent that you have seriously considered visiting a doctor about it, do not check yes next to any of them. These forms are not trying to weed out those with indigestion or the common cold, they're trying to weed out H1N1 flu, the West Nile virus, and other serious pandemics. If you answer yes to these questions, you will still likely be allowed into the country, but not after a long round of poking and prodding, not only for you, but possibly everyone else who is sharing your vehicle into the country as well.

After your paperwork is in, you will be handed your passport. I know I mentioned it already but this next step is the crucial one that many people mess up, so I'm saying it again: open your passport and check your new entry stamp, and how long you are allowed into the country. If it's not clear from the stamp, this is your best (and often only) opportunity to ask.

And that's it! Usually anyway. Often there will be a little extra you'll have to deal with, but these guys are pros and if they don't tell you what you're supposed to do, someone else in line with you will. After that, congratulate yourself on entering another country, get out there and have fun!

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Flying Rats?

The last few days have been more relaxing than eventful, due in part to great hosts in both France and Italy (thanks again). So instead of talking about crazy adventures, we're going to talk about pigeons.

Europe has pigeons. Lots of them. It could just be me, but I think these little guys have gotten a lot bolder than they were ten or twenty years ago.

In the town of Aix, France, my parents, our friends Mike and Clare, and I came out to a square and decided we waned to get a coffee. There are plenty of little cafes in the square around the big fountain, and they all have outdoor tables, very nicely arranged under some large trees. We went to choose our seats. Somebody suggest we get some in the sun, away from the awnings. I found a nice spot next to a nice table and looked down at what, from a distance, looked like a nice chair. At some point, I'm sure it was a nice chair. Except that a lot of nice pigeons had nicely gotten there first and had copiously left their mark. I reached over to switch with a clean chair. There weren't any. All of the chairs in the sun were covered in wet white and greenish-brown spots. We decided to sit under the awning after all. It's one of those problems that makes complete sense, except that you don't remember having it anywhere else.

Just a few days later, I'd taken a train back to Italy, past one of the bi-weekly French railroad strikes (free ride!). I had a two hour wait in the border town of Ventimiglia before a train into Milan. Ventimiglia is a seaside town, so I wandered over to the shore. I found a river running to the sea. I walked across a long bridge to take in the view up the valley the river ran through on one side, and the beach on the other. I noticed a few pigeons wandering on the bridge, and a few seagulls floating in the water blow. I stopped to take a picture. While pulling out my camera, I rustled the paper bag containing my lunch.

Within seconds, I was surrounded. Pigeons cooing and flapping on all sides, and seagulls circling me like low-flying buzzards. None of them dive bombed me or anything, but I was clearly the center of attention. the gulls gave up after they realized there were no handouts coming, but the pigeons all hopped down behind me and followed me across the bridge. I've never been followed on foot by a flock of birds before. The same thing happened again on the way back, a head-thrusting herd of hypnotized birds following the pair of shoes they last saw when they heard that sound of a bag filled with food.

Then I get to Milan and the Duomo, as per my couchsurfing host's instructions. Once I finished saying wow and recovered (also per my host's instructions) I looked at the statue behind me, about a quarter of which is streaked white. Two pigeons very nearly collided with my legs, and several flew within inches of my head. I later find out that a common scam in this square is for people selling birdseed to slip some in the pockets of unsuspecting tourists so that the pigeons will dive bomb them. The idea is that the seller then comes up and offers to distract them with more (purchased) birdseed.

Nineteen years ago, my parents took me to Europe for the first time. I don't remember it very well but my parents still tell the stories. In St Mark's Square, we saw a scene a lot like the one I saw today, only I imagine the birds were a bit more calm. All around were little European kids my age, nicely handing out bird seed and feeding the pigeons. Perhaps my parents thought I would like to do that as well. But I had different plans. I took one look at the huge flock of birds and instead of acting like a European kid, I acted like a European puppy. One gleeful battle cry and I charged. All the birds scattered to the winds. My parents were a little embarrassed. I loved it.

I'm not four years old anymore. But after the chairs, the bridge, and the statues, I've been mighty tempted to give a repeat performance one of these days.

Check out this entry's Photos. No, they're not all of pigeons.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Travel Tip: Two Fingers to Watch

Quick tip for today. If you looked at this picture and immediately thought of the number two, congrats, you don't need to read this post. The rest of you, pay attention.

Back when he was president of the USA, George Bush Sr. visited Australia. From his caravan, he waved, saluted, and gave what he thought was the victory sign. The next day, all the local papers published the headlines "American President Insults Australian Public."


You see, in many countries, holding up your index and middle finger to make a V sign with the back of your hand facing away from you does not mean "victory" or "peace." It means "up yours." In fact in a couple countries in Europe, it doesn't matter which way your hand is facing, it's still an insult.

But you'd never do a silly thing like that, would you? Well, actually, you might. most Americans learn to count on their hands starting with their index finger, not using their thumb until they get to the number five. Try this and stop at the number two. See what I mean?

This is how, if you're not thinking about it, you're going to try to order two of something at a European or Aussie bar or restaurant and royally piss off your server. This isn't universal, just look at any photo that includes a Japanese (or Chinese or Korean) tourist. But it's an easy mistake to avoid.

So, while abroad, especially in Europe, Oz, and NZ, get in the habit of counting starting with your thumb (or, if you're weird like me, your pinky). After a while, it'll be as natural as measuring temperature in centigrade and using the metric system.

While we're on the subject of gestures, other obvious ones to avoid (or use, when the situation calls for it) are poking your forehead with your index finger or thumb, scratching under your chin with the back of your hand facing away from you, and of course the near-universal middle finger (with or without thumb-- you guys can argue that one along with your soda vs. pop debates, I need no part in the fight).

Beyond that, take a glance at what a guidebook says about gestures in your destination country. You'll learn how the finger wag North Americans use to tell their kids they've been bad simply means "no" in Latin America, and that nodding your head up and down in Bulgaria does as well. You might even be able to decipher the infamous Indian head wobble. If you do, let me know. None of the 25 students I was with or our (Indian-born) Hindi teacher could ever figure it out.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Meet the Parents

In a lot of ways, it's thanks to the two people on the left side that I can do this at all. I don't just mean the last week (though that certainly wouldn't have happened without them), I meant this whole year and some change I've been gone.

They were the first ones who told me I should think about saving money early on so I could do something big later in life. He taught me a few things about writing, she taught me a few things about photography. He challenged me to think carefully about the the world around me. She gave me an eye and a ear for talking (and more importantly listening) to the people living in it. He passed on his passion for exploration, she taught me her knack for getting the practicalities of it done. And each thing I've listed either of them doing, the other had a hand in as well.

A lot of parents in their position would have preferred me to do something sensible-- maybe go to grad school and/or get a job, earn a living and start a secure future somewhere near the family. Some would have tried to stop anything different. Many parents would have lectured. Some would have simply asked repeatedly. Others still might have tried to subtly hinted just to make things uncomfortable enough that I'd give in. But not them.

To this day, I can't think of a time they ever questioned my resolve to go out and do this, to drop everything after college, stuff some clothes in a bag, and run off to Mexico telling everyone I'd see them in a "year" after I'd been around the world. Not once did they ever voice or even imply any misgivings about my dream or doubts about my ability to see it through.

So here we are. I've almost done it. It's been the longest I've been apart from them in my lifetime, and now we're all back together. Not much has changed. My father still makes the same jokes at the dinner table, and my mother still has the same exasperated reactions. My mother still takes photos at every opportunity and my father still has a cascade of things fall out of his shirt pocket every time he bends over. My father can still recite more facts and background information than almost anyone I know about nearly anything, and my mother can still spot exactly the right thing that is called for in nearly any social situation or dynamic. He still holds his title as (as one writer put it) "an eater of serious scope." She still reads whole paragraphs in the time it takes us to finish sentences.

Their traveling style took me a bit to get used to. We've been doing a checklist of the big sites and following the crowds, staying in one town before flying to the next. The tourist shops I avoid like the plague for selling flimsy kitch for outrageous prices have a gravitational pull for my mother ("I just want to find a snow globe with the Acropolis in it!"). I slow my usual walking pace to about half, and still have to stop every few minutes for them to catch up. But if there is one difference in travel style that I appreciate very much, it's the budget and ability to eat very, very well.

Thanks to about a week in Corfu long ago with one Greek Taverna that had a six-foot-long menu with only three items on it, they'd been bracing themselves for Greek food. But what we had in Athens was some of the best I've had in a long time, the climax being our last night eating succulent lamb falling off the bone cooked with tomatoes and eggplant on a rooftop terrace with a perfect night view of the Athenian Acropolis. And that was before we went to Italy and then France. The staples, pizza, pasta, and gelato, then croissant, wine, pates, and cheese were only the very beginning. If anywhere in the world takes food seriously, it's Italy and France. We sat outside in one Roman restaurant, told our waiter the words "antipasto misto," and he zipped off and came back with six heaping bowls of six different dishes with prosciutto, vegetables, marscapone cheese, and more. Then he brought out two more bowls. Then two more after that. And then he asked us what we would like to order for our main course.

When we weren't eating, we were busy seeing the historical treasures of the Western world. Wake up, breakfast spanikopita, Parthenon, lunch souvlaki and olives, Ancient Agora, ice cream snack, break in room for choosing restaurant, gourmet dinner with retsina, walk home through back alleys of Athens under a nearly full moon. Wake up a couple days later, hotel breakfast buffet, Vatican Museum, Sistene Chapel, St Peter's Baisillica, prosciutto sandwich for lunch with gelato, walk past castle and Ancient Roman bridges to a postcard-perfect neighborhood at sunset, gourmet Italian dinner with local wine. And now we're lazing about in a small village off the southeast coast of France with some good family friends in their house, getting croissant fresh from the bakers for breakfast. I would have come a long way just for the smell inside that bakery, let alone eating the goods.

A lot of people would "put up with" their parents to get all that. But my parents have never been people I've needed to "put up with." Combine that with what we've been doing, and I don't see how I could be any luckier than I am.

So this is for them. A small thank you for encouraging me to come as far as I have and for meeting me on the other side.

Check out this entry's Photos.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Travel Tip: Tips for Guy Backpackers (...from a guy)

I made a post for the ladies already--- you guys didn't think I was going to leave my own gender hanging high and dry, did you? Gentlemen, this might come as a surprise, but there are a few things we need to keep in mind when traveling that the fairer sex don't. Here are a few of them:

-Generally speaking, the most common victims of assault and robbery among travelers are lone men. This is because we tend to assume that our sex makes us safe, meaning we'll take risks that women tend to avoid. The most common mistakes are being any combination of lost, alone, and/or drunk at night. In most places, this is dumb. In places where you don't know the language, don't have anyone you can call up for help, and don't know all the ins and outs of things like local law enforcement, it's even dumber. Testosterone doesn't make us invincible (it just tries to tell us we are), so while you may think you are less likely to be attacked than a woman, don't let that lead you into stupid situations.

-As a man, in many cultures, you will be often be expected to drink a lot more than you might at home. Do your homework, and, know whether it is offensive for you to refuse a drink. Women are allowed to do this almost universally. For men it's sometimes harder. If you're up to the challenge, make sure you are either already where you'll spend the night, or have someone who will be sober to get you home (and make sure they actually know how to get you home at the hour you want to go). This is much more important while traveling than it would be when you're in a country where you speak the language, know the area, and have friends who will come looking for you and help you out if something goes wrong.

If you're not interested, take small sips, keep an eye open for a place to drain your drink unnoticed until it's half full, then pretend to take sips from that. A full glass points out that you're not drinking. An empty one signals to your new friends that you want another drink. If you have choice of drinks, mix yourself something that looks like it's alcoholic (but isn't) and get possessive if anyone else wants a sip (or pretend you're getting a cold and don't want to make anyone else sick).

If you do not drink for personal or religious reasons, this is usually accepted, though with a similar air as telling people in a steakhouse that you're vegan. More often if you declare that you are recovering alcoholic and want to drop it, then your choice will be almost universally respected (though keep in mind this can lead to odd situations later).

-In many countries, you'll get a lot of physical contact from other men in ways you might not be used to or comfortable with. One male traveler I met who spent a lot of time with Korean exchange students reported heterosexual Korean men would often caress and pat his butt with their hand while talking to him, and be completely mystified as to why he found this startling or confusing. I never experienced anything quite that intimate, but when you're in a new country you'll sometimes be expected to do things like hugging, holding hands with or kissing other guys on the cheek. Not doing this usually gets the same reaction as refusing to shake someone's hand at home, so either go with it, or make sure you can explain yourself adequately so that people won't be offended.

-If you need to shave daily and don't use an electric razor, bring extra blades/cartridges. In places where the local guys aren't able to grow facial hair as easily, you might have a hard time finding the kind you want. In big cities, Gillette and Schick are easy to find, and I'm pretty sure Antarctica is the only continent I haven't seen somebody selling a Mach 3 cartridge somewhere. If you do use an electric razor, double check what kind of power outlets it can handle, especially if it's built for 110v, 220v, both, or something else.

-Rule of thumb for the heterosexual traveling man: if she seems like she's too good to be true, she probably is. While it's true that being foreign can make you more attractive, there are plenty of scams involving a skilled local thief being let in by a smitten male traveler, enjoying a night of passion, and then helping themselves to the passport, credit cards, and other goodies in the room while the guy's asleep. This doesn't mean that you should avoid all lone women while traveling, it just means that that slightly shy girl in the group of friends someone introduced you to is probably safer than the girl who came alone across half the bar to say hello in your language and massage your thigh. Also be aware that sometimes, in select countries (most famously Thailand), "she" might not actually be a, well, she.

Less risky but more common are simple scams targeting men where an attractive young woman is in some sort of distress and seems to think only you can help her. This can either simply be a way to part a heroic fool and his money, or serve as a distraction while an associate helps him or herself to your pockets and bags. Have a heart, be compassionate and helpful when you encounter someone like this in need, but try to help in other ways than simply handing over cash, and watch your stuff. If the damsel in distress get increasingly angry and frustrated by your offers of non-monetary help, chances are it's a scam.

Yet another variant is girl or group of girls that ask a lone foreign man to come with them to a bar, cafe, restaurant, or tea house, and everything rosy until the guy ends up being handed a bill for ten times the going rate of whatever is ordered. This is especially common in major cities in China.  When invited by to this sort of thing, be friendly, and suggest a place of your own. If they get pushy, smile, tell them it was nice meeting them, and move on.

-Bring condoms from home. In a perfect world, this would be the responsibility of both genders, but in reality, it's usually the guy that's expected to supply these. Local brands are more likely to break than the ones you'll get back in the west. Also, in places like Asia, I've heard reports that the size can be a little uncomfortable for westerners, but this could be a myth. Better safe than sorry in any case.

-In the tips for women, Sonia, Sonja and Emily all emphasized covering up when the local women cover up. In a small number of cases, namely Muslim countries, this applies to men too. The consequences are a lot less annoying, but if you're wearing shorts or short sleeves where you shouldn't, you'll simply be refused entry or service in certain places. Much more common are places where you'll make people a little upset by wandering around shirtless. Also, even in area where it's fine, if you have more chest or other body hair than the local guys, expect a little unwanted attention (some people without chest hair don't seem to understand that pulling it hurts, and that doing it to a complete stranger is weird). As we said for the women, watch the locals and follow suit.

That's a start, I think. Once again, I encourage any men out there with travel experience to share other tips they have for us guys.

Monday, October 5, 2009

People to See

It's really only been ten days since I was in Amsterdam. This picture was taken in Budapest, Hungary. Give you any idea of how I'm moving around here?

I'm sitting in an airport waiting for my plane to Athens. I'm used to taking a relatively straight path through any region. If it's not straight, at least it's linear. Try pulling out a map and plotting this route: Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Berlin & Munich (Germany), Amsterdam & Eindhoven (Netherlands), Halle (Belgium), Vienna (Austria), Budapest & Visegrad (Hungary), and then my next leg: Athens (Greece), Rome (Italy), and Carnoules (France). Then making my way to Turkey. It's like you've handed a map and a marker to a three year old after having it drink three red bulls.

The method behind the madness is the people. Thanks to my jog into Belgium, I got to see my brother, sister-in-law, and oldest niece for the first time in exactly one year. I wrote that last post while we stayed with family friends who made very sure we got to try all the best Belgian beer, chocolate, french (not really-- they're from Belgium) fries, and waffles. So many waffles. We had them for dessert one night, our hosts Walter and Lutgard making them in the kitchen and bringing them out in batches and they just. kept. coming. and coming. and coming. They packed me three more for a lunch for my bus ride to Vienna, along with more chocolate, three sandwiches, two apples, and a tart. They were concerned it wouldn't be quite enough.

Before that was a quick jog into Eindhoven to meet up with a good Portuguese friend of mine I met in Siberia (you might remember him actually, Gareth showed up in the post on the Trans-Siberian rail), while he showed me around, the two of us careening around on one bicycle to a party hosted by a Chilean, attended by people from all over Europe. After that was visiting a good friend in college who's just moved to Austria for grad school, and then running off to Hungary with an English teacher I met in Laos. I almost threw in a leg through Spain to Portugal instead of Vienna to meet one of my oldest friends from grade school and more of the Portuguese crowd, but the costs just got too high.

And in fifty three minutes, I will board my flight to Athens to meet my parents.

The last I saw of them was Sept 23rd, 2008. My father had to get the car out of the drop off-lane. I remember one of the last things he did before that was to just look at me and say "Gosh. You're really doing it."

So if you'll excuse me, I'm going ahead and making this a shorter post than usual, because I want to get ready to see my family. If you want to hear good stories about this latest leg of my trip, drop me a line and ask about things like finding ducks for Happy Thursday, a rock concert underground (literally) in Hungary, Dr. Freud's home videos, "liberating" flowers for a housewarming gift, or my time sleeping on a chair, a three-foot loveseat, and a cardboard box lined up end-to-end. It's been an interesting week. Just like all my weeks these days.

Time to fly.

Check out this entry's Photos.