Category: Travel

Rest Stop

[Up] [Previous]

Quite a few people have written to me commenting on how much fun I seem to be having. I suppose by condensing every two weeks of traveling into just a few pages, I have focused on the highlights; the fun and fascinating moments that punctuate this trip. In other words, this Cliff Notes version may make it look like all pleasure and no pain. Trust me though: sometimes traveling is damned tiring!

From the time we left Athens, until we arrived in Scotland, we were traveling non-stop. Staying in youth hostels and bottom-rung hotels, never getting enough sleep, driving hundreds of kilometers a day, trying to communicate in foreign languages, changing countries more often than underwear, these things can wear on you after a while, make you long for a home. By the time we got to Scotland, what we wanted more than anything was to stay in one place for two nights in a row.

What a Long, Strange Trip It’s Been

Friday, November 4, 1994. Last night we got ripped off by a taxi driver. We had to be at the airport at 5:00am, so we decided to stay close by. The taxi driver took us to what he said was one of the only open hotels in the area — the rest being closed for the season. Our noisy, crappy little room was 17,000 drachma (about US$60). We found out later that we could have had a nicer room at a hotel across the street for 11,000 drachma. What the taxi driver had done was to take us to a hotel that would give him a kickback. There was so much traffic noise that we only slept about four hours.

Our flight from Greece to Germany was a discount flight on Czechoslovakian Airlines, changing planes in Prague. This was about US$100 less than a direct flight on Lufthansa. Unfortunately the plane to Prague arrived late and our luggage missed the connection to Munich. So, instead of being able to leave Munich immediately, we had to wait 8 hours for our packs to arrive on the next flight. By the time they arrived at 7:00 in the evening, we were too exhausted to go anywhere, having been awake since 3:00am. We picked up the car in Mauern and checked into a nearby hotel.

Saturday, November 5, 1994. The first day of our drive to Britain, we decided to head to France and see how far we could make it. Our first stop was a small town called Ulm, which is in Southern Germany, near Stuttgart. Ulm is famous for two things: it is the birthplace of Albert Einstein and it is home to the tallest cathedral in the world, the Ulm Munster. Munster is the German word for cathedral but, yes, as the name implies, this particular cathedral is monsterous. It took over 400 years to complete, from the 14th to 18th centuries, and it’s intricately carved steeple is over 530 feet high. As you look at it, you can’t help but wonder about the awe it must have inspired in the farmers and peasants who came to see it in centuries past. This building is one of the world’s most powerful testaments to the glory of God. Of course, it is also a powerful testament to the wealth and power of the church. For 2 DM, you can climb the 50-story screw staircase to the top of the steeple for a view of the town and surrounding countryside, but we were eager to push on. We stayed just long enough to walk around the town and to admire the Munster from the ground.

Paint It Black

Just past Ulm is the famous Black Forest, which covers the most of southwestern Germany. Unfortunately, we only saw it from the Autobahn on our way to France, so all I can tell you is this: Most of the trees have unusually dark trunks, hence the name. The forest is especially black at this time of year when the leaves have fallen from the trees and there is not yet snow on the ground. Away from the Autobahn, on the smaller roads leading into the forest, there are many small villages that cater to tourists and hikers. I hope we will see some of these villages on our next trip to Germany.

Sunday, November 6,1994. Last night we made it as far as Reims, which is about 100 km northwest of Paris, and stopped for the night. The youth hostel in Reims is described in Let’s Go as being “as close to heaven as a hostel gets.” Although the hostel is quite clean and completely adequate, it seems the author of that statement must not have seen the hostels in Scotland. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

One thing we particularly enjoyed about this hostel was the showers, an efficient invention called “Presto Douche”. I know, I’m amused by the simplest things, but this is really something we ought to have in the States. Pressing a button gives you a huge blast of warm water that lasts for about ten seconds; just the right temperature and just long enough to get thoroughly wet. Then you soap up and shampoo, and press the button again for another ten second blast of water; just long enough to rinse off completely. These showers are so efficient, yet with no sacrifice of water pressure, that I’m surprised I haven’t seen more of them.

It’s a Small World

Today we spent the day at Euro Disney, just outside of Paris. I had never heard anything about Euro Disney, except that it was a financial disaster, with high operating costs and poor attendance. My conception was that Euro Disney would be something like Florida’s Walt Disney World; a larger complex than California’s Disneyland. In fact, it’s just the opposite. Although Euro Disney is situated on an enormous plot of land, the park itself is smaller than Disneyland. Moreover, the park has very few attractions and only two rollercoasters are operational (a third, similar to Space Mountain, is scheduled for completion next year). Some of the attractions — such as Star Tours, Captain Eo, and the Haunted Mansion — are identical to the ones in Disneyland. And some — such as the Pirates of the Caribbean — are better (Disney’s animatronics have improved significantly since the original was built).

All in all, we enjoyed the day at Euro Disney. The dearth of attractions was offset by fewer people and shorter lines. Also, the park has a decidedly French flavor. One good example was the Pirates of the Caribbean singing “Yo Ho, Yo Ho, a pirate’s life for me” in French. One thing we found irritating was spending US$3.00 on a popcorn, only to find it sweet instead of salty. We have since discovered that all of the movie theaters in the UK serve popcorn either sugared or salted, your choice.

After EuroDisney, we bypassed Paris, and tonight we are staying in a skid-row hotel in Lille. Lille is near the English Channel and tomorrow we’ll take a ferry to England. Lille is actually a very pleasant city, but the hotel is a real dump and we are both getting pretty stressed out about moving so quickly. I think we are ready to stop for a while when we get to the UK.

Comin’ Into London From Over the Border

Every border is different. Since most of the EC countries have no border checks anymore — as I witnessed between Germany and Belgium, and again between Germany and France — I was expecting our entrance toEngland to be a snap. Au contraire. England is very picky about who they let into their country. After disembarking from the ferry, we drove to the border guard’s booth and played twenty questions. Ann had no problem, since she already had completed paperwork for a work visa, and she is coming to the UK as part of a student work exchange program. But, with me, the border guard was adamant about seeing some proof of my solvency: How much money did I have on me? Did I have bank statements showing my balances? Where was I employed? How long did I plan to be in the UK? What would I do for money while I was here? Could I prove that I could remain solvent during my stay here? I didn’t realize I was being a smart-ass when I told him I had 10 pounds on me. Trust me on this one: being a smart-ass with border guards only makes things worse. He finally seemed satisfied with the fact that I had several gold credit cards and a couple of magazines with articles I had recently written.

Now that was pretty stressful, but it was just an appetizer for the real stress: driving on the left side of the road! It was white-knuckle driving from the minute we left the border station until we parked the car at the hostel in London. When we finally arrived, I was in a genuinely foul mood. If you’ve never driven on the left before, take my advice: don’t do what I did. Don’t drive straight into central London your first time out. London streets are unbelievably confusing. When you add to this the fact that everyone is on the wrong side of the street and all those stupid roundabouts go clockwise instead of counter-clockwise, you’d have to be insane to try it without a few days practice in smaller cities. Unfortunately, I didn’t know any better. I’m just thankful that Ann was with me to read the map so I could concentrate on staying to the left.

We spent two days in London (in two different hostels) while Ann attended orientation at her work exchange program, and now we’re on the road again, heading north for Scotland. Although her original plan was to work in London, I talked her out of it. Every large city we have been in has been more expensive less interesting than the smaller towns. We need to find someplace that is large enough for her to find work, but small enough to be less expensive and less congested.

I Just Want to Stop

As I mentioned earlier, the hostels in Scotland are truly amazing. Our first stop was in Melrose, about 40 miles south of Edinburgh. We stayed there for two days — only because we had not spent two days in the same place since we left Greece — and then pushed on to Edinburgh. In both cities, the hostels were large, clean, and inexpensive. The kitchens are spacious, with lots of dishes and cooking equipment. By cooking your own meals, you can live on less than L10 (about US$16) a day.

A popular way for budget travelers to see Scotland is with Haggis Tours, a tour company that runs buses from hostel to hostel in a circuit around most of the country. For L50, you can see all of Scotland, getting on or off the bus as often as you like. Haggis, by the way, is Scotland’s national dish, a concoction of sheep offal (lungs, heart, liver, fat, etc.) and oats, all wrapped in the sheep’s paunch (that’s stomach to you and me). Haggis and black pudding (a sausage made mostly of blood) are immensely popular here. We’ve tried haggis, and it’s better than I expected, but the black pudding just isn’t calling my name.

We’ve decided to stay in Edinburgh for the winter. Edinburgh is the capital of Scotland, so it’s large enough for Ann to find plenty of work, but it’s still not the urban sprawl of London. Ann will be working here, and I will focus on my other writing and programming. We didn’t make it to Turkey this year, so it remains on the top of our list of places to see beginning in the spring. And that’s it for this installment. In fact, this will be the last travel diary I will write until we start traveling again in a few months. In the meantime, feel free to email me here. Before I go, I’d just like to say that I’ve enjoyed having you follow me on this trip. I committed myself to writing these periodic updates not only as a way to keep my family and friends informed of my adventures and mishaps, but also to give myself a clearer memory of this time when I look back. And it has also given me a group of virtual traveling companions; friends who are along for the ride, if only in spirit. Thank you all

[Up] [Previous]

Copyright © 1994, Kenn Nesbitt

Italy and Greece

[Up] [Previous] [Next]

Tuesday, October 18, 1994. The train ride from Cinque Terre to Rome took most of the day. During the last hour of the trip, a lively young Italian man named Tonino (that’s “Little Tony” to you and me) struck up a conversation with us. Soon, all three of the Italians in our compartment were happily jabbering in broken English. I love that singa-songa accacenta that Italians have, pronouncing every syllable as though it ends with a vowel. Tonino’s English was the best of the three, as he had spent six months studying in England.

Roam if You Want To

On arriving in Rome, Tonino showed us where we could pay to store our packs for a while, where to buy tickets for the trip to Brindisi later in the evening, and then he took us on the bus to the center of the city. Although he lives in a small town in northern Italy, he is very enthusiastic about Rome. I have to say, Tonino was so friendly, so unlike most of the Italians we have met, that I was on my guard, expecting him to turn into a con-artist at any moment. Fortunately, he was just what he seemed to be: a genuinely nice guy who wanted to be helpful and show off his country.

We have five hours between trains, so Tonino has pointed us to a few of Rome’s major sites: the Colosseum, the Unknown Soldier’s monument, Benito Mussolini’s former residence, and the Piazza Navona, an enormous baroque plaza with marvelous statues. We are not staying long enough to see Vatican City and the Sistine Chapel, which is okay, because I’m already thinking that five hours in Rome is too much. For all of it’s amazing monuments and ancient ruins, Rome is still noisy, crowded and dirty. Even crossing the street is frightening, navigating through flurries of scooters and lunatic drivers.

Plop, Plop, Fizz, Fizz, Oh What a Relief It Is

As a traveler, one of the inconveniences you learn to deal with is the state of public restrooms. Rule number one when traveling in Europe — especially southern and eastern Europe — is carry your own toilet paper. As you travel south or east, the conveniences begin to disappear. The first thing to go is the cleanliness; European restrooms can be nauseatingly filthy. Next goes the toilet paper. By the time you get to Italy and Greece, you’ll find that most public toilets do not have toilet seats. And, by the time you get to Turkey, there is no toilet at all; just a hole in the floor and a place to put your feet as you squat.

Rome is so filthy that we are unwilling to use most of the public restrooms. This is where McDonald’s comes in handy. Although many travelers consider McDonald’s to be a cultural cancer metastasizing in the previously healthy cities of the world, a global homogenizer destroying cultural and scenic uniqueness with the artistry of a bulldozer, the restaurant equivalent of the Borg, McDonald’s can nevertheless be counted on to have more-or-less clean restrooms with toilet seats and toilet paper.

If you’re wondering, the entire reason for this discourse on McDonald’s and the state of European toilets is just to tell you about an ingenious invention we discovered in the restroom at McDonald’s of Rome. It is called McWash. The best inventions are the ones that are so obvious, you wonder why no one thought of them sooner, and McWash is just that. To wash your hands, you put them into an opening in the wall labeled “McWash”, which sprays them first with soapy water, then with rinse water, and finally dries them off with hot air. Maybe we’re just easily amused, but both Ann and I came out of our respective restrooms saying “Wow! What a cool sink!

Stealing the Night Away

Wednesday, October 19, 1994. There are thieves on the night trains in Italy. Ann and I are on an overnight train from Rome to Brindisi, again trying to sleep in one of the six-seat compartments in which the seats pull out to form a makeshift bed. These compartments are not very deep; short enough that my foot touches the sliding door. Twice during the night, someone opened the door — waking me up — and then left. At first, I thought nothing of it; just a passenger looking for an empty compartment, and in too much of a hurry to actually look in the window to see the sleeping people. But at about 4:00 am we both woke to find a man standing on our “bed”, reaching for Ann’s pack. As we sat up, he grinned sheepishly and said something like “skyoozie” as he backed out of the compartment.

When you wake from a dead sleep into a confusing situation, your mind shuffles the possibilities and spits them out like a blackjack dealer on speed. At the end of the deck, only one possibility is laying face-up: that man was a thief! He was after our stuff! Nevermind that Ann’s pack weighs about 30 kilos and he never could have gotten it down without waking us. Nevermind that, even if he had gotten her pack, there was nothing of substantial value in it. But it pisses me off that there are people making a living stealing luggage from sleeping train passengers in Italy. When I was traveling with Michael and Bronwen, Michael mentioned that he had lost his Eurail pass to a pickpocket in the Rome train station. Just be forewarned: always be extremely cautious with your belongings when you travel; there are lots of scumbags eagerly waiting for a chance to take them from you.

I’m So Tired, I Haven’t Slept a Wink

Our travel guide recommends one of the hotels in Brindisi, Italy on the off chance that you are forced to spend the night and suicide is not an option. This is only a slight exaggeration. Brindisi is a miserable little town. If not for the ferry port, Brindisi would be a miserable little town with no reason to exist.

What made Brindisi even worse is that we had had a whopping 2 hours of sleep on the train and an 11 hour layover before our ferry left for Greece. The ferry ride was long enough for another 6 hours of sleep, but the sea was rough and we did not sleep well. Corfu — the one of the largest Ionian islands, on the northwest coast of Greece — greeted us with buckets of rain. Needless to say, we were less than cheerful by the time we arrived.

The only thing we had been told by previous visitors was “Don’t go to the ‘Pink Palace’.” The Pink Palace is apparently a drinking fest cleverly disguised as a hotel. At the Corfu ferry landing there were representatives of several different hotels, including the Pink Palace, vying for guests. We and several other passengers went with a man named Spiros to the hotel “Vrachos” on Pelekas Beach. As soon as we checked in, we went to our room and slept for the rest of the morning.

Pelekas Beach is on the west side of Corfu, the opposite side from the ferry landing, so we would never have found it on our own. I’m glad we went with Spiros, though, because both Pelekas Beach and Vrachos were an excellent choice. At US$6.50 per night, the rooms are not luxurious, but Pelekas is one of Corfu’s finest beaches, and Vrachos has everything you need, including a restaurant and bar, a small shop, cheap scooter and snorkel rentals, etc. You would have to work hard to spend more than US$20 a day. Although we originally intended to stay only two nights, we ended up staying nine; it’s easy to get stuck on Corfu. After a couple initial days of rain, we spent a week sunbathing, bodysurfing, snorkeling, riding scooters around the island, watching the sunsets and hanging out with other guests.

Two Tickets to Paradise

Saturday, October 29, 1994. After three false starts, we finally escaped from Corfu. Our plan was to take a ferry to Igoumenitsa on the mainland and then catch a bus to Athens. The ferry part worked out alright, but we just missed the 11:00am bus. The next bus wasn’t until 6:30pm, which would have put us into Athens at 3:00am. Instead we opted to take a bus to the nearby town of Parga — a nicer town than Igoumenitsa, according to our guidebook — to spend the night.

Jackpot! If you are looking for an idyllic Greek seaside resort in which to spend a month or two, you couldn’t go wrong by choosing Parga. Parga is entirely a tourist destination; there are only 2,000 residents but, during the summer months, the population swells to 45,000. This means that 90% of the housing in Parga is hotels and private rooms for rent. Double rooms rent for 4000 – 7000 drachma (US$18 – US$31), allowing for a very affordable vacation.

More importantly, Parga is one of the most scenic vacation spots we have seen. It is a small Greek village of narrow, winding flagstone streets, built on the slopes of a hill that falls away into a clear, waveless sea. On the hill overlooking the town is a minimally restored thousand-year-old Norman fortress and, a hundred meters out in the water is a small white chapel on a tiny island. Both the island and the fort are well lighted after dark, ensuring that Parga is as beautiful at night as it is in the day. On Sundays, the town is transported to another world by the wailing songs of the Greek Orthodox priest, broadcast all morning over loudspeakers and echoing off the hillside.

We are told that, in the summer months, Parga is standing-room only but, because it was late in the year, there was hardly anyone there; we felt like we were the only visitors in town. And, even though it was nearly November, the weather was perfect. We intended to stay only a single night, but we couldn’t bring ourselves to leave in less than three. This place is like a drug. Sunbathing on warm, pebble beaches, swimming in the crystal blue Mediterranean, dining on fresh fish and red Greek wine in quiet waterfront restaurants; I’m jonesing just thinking about it.

Don’t Drink the Water and Don’t Breathe the Air

Athens sucks. The air is so polluted you might as well take up chain-smoking. The traffic congestion and noise pollution are so bad, and the city is so unrelentingly ugly that we can’t wait to leave. Admittedly, as ancient ruins go, Athens has the best in the world. Aside from the pyramids of Egypt, the Athenian ruins are among the only “seven wonders of the ancient world” still standing. In the three days that we’ve been here, we’ve seen the Temple of Olympian Zeus, the Acropolis, and several other ancient ruins, plus the marble Stadium where the first modern Olympics were held in 1896, a re-creation of an ancient Greek stadium. We’ve also visited Athens’ famous flea-market, Greece’s National Garden, and generally tried to see much of what Athens has to offer. Our conclusion? Athens is a dump of world-class proportions. We give it a big thumbs-down. Sure, use the Athens airport as a stepping stone to the Greek islands or coastal resorts, but don’t plan on spending any time here.

Leaving on a Jet Plane

Friday, November 4, 1994. Ann and I are on a plane from Athens to Munich right now. In Munich we will pick up my car and drive to England and Scotland. We got so heavily side-tracked in Greece that we have decided to postpone our Turkey trip for a while.

Until next time, I’d like to leave you with this parting thought. Although I don’t think I’ve said it explicitly, you’ve probably noticed something from these travelogues that I’ve been noticing all along: smaller towns and villages are consistently more pleasant and interesting than large cities. Since, for example, we’ve all heard of Rome and Venice and Florence, it’s convenient, when planning a vacation trip to Italy, to think in terms of spending it in those cities. My advice is this: read your travel guide carefully with an eye toward the smaller places. They are usually cleaner, cheaper and friendlier. Taking the time to search out interesting little villages is almost certain to be more rewarding than heading for the big cities.

[Up] [Previous] [Next]

Copyright © 1994, Kenn Nesbitt

South from Prague

[Up] [Previous] [Next]

Monday, October 3, 1994. Everyone who has been to Prague, the capital city of the Czech Republic, will tell you about its enchanting beauty and how much they enjoyed their visit. Some will tell you that Prague is overrun by American and German tourists and has lost the innocent charm it once had. Some will tell you how inexpensive Prague is, how you can live like a king on just a few dollars. All of these things are true.

What they may forget to mention, while telling you the facts and statistics, is that you cannot help but feel at home in Prague. As you wander spellbound around the magnificent town square of Stare Mesto, then through the maze of narrow cobbled streets, over the majestic Charles Bridge, and up the hill to the castle, you will notice a feeling of peace and contentment. I cannot tell you where this feeling comes from, but I can tell you it is quite real.

Sweet is the Night

Prague’s beauty is even more dramatic at night than it is in the day. All of the important monuments — the Charles Bridge, the castle, etc. — are well-lit, providing a fairy-tale illusion that they are the only buildings in Prague. Every night, there are several different operas to choose from, all for under US$5. Mozart’s Requiem was written in Prague, and is performed every Friday and Saturday night.

It is turning cold now. The nighttime temperature in Prague is just a few degrees above freezing. I’m staying in a clean, inexpensive hostel, a short way from the city center, called Pension V. Podzamci. The hostel is run by a Eva, very friendly Czech woman with a disarming sense of humor. If you walk in and say “I have a reservation,” she will reply coyly “Are you sure?” She is particularly fond of Australians. Even if the hostel is full, she will find room for you if you are from Australia. When I called her for a room, it was late in the evening and the hostel was already full. I mentioned that I had four Australian friends there and that I was hoping to stay with them. She found me a bed.

I’ve met an American woman, Ann, traveling alone and staying here at V. Podzamci. We discovered that our immediate travel plans are the same: we both want to see Greece and Turkey, but neither of us wants to go alone. We will leave the car in Germany, take the train through Italy, and then catch a ferry to Greece.

Let Me Take You Down, ‘Cause I’m Going To…

Friday, October 7, 1994. Before I met Ann, I had arranged to go to Budapest for a few days to reconnect with Jen and Christie, the two Americans I met in Hallstatt last week. Two nights ago, I drove from Prague to Budapest, Hungary with Amber, a Canadian woman who is traveling alone. The drive took longer than I expected, almost nine hours. We could not take the most direct route — through Bratislava, Slovakia — because Canadians cannot enter Slovakia without a visa and Amber had not paid for one. Another Canadian woman we met in Prague had told us about spending a day in Slovakian jail for not having a visa. When her train from Budapest to Prague went through Bratislava, she was arrested and thrown in jail for a half-day, and then eventually put on a train back to Budapest. She was especially distraught because they spoke no English and she did not know how long she would be in jail.

For those of you who plan to travel on the cheap and expect to see Budapest, let me tell you this. We spent two nights in Budapest, at two different hostels listed in Let’s Go: Europe. The first was the worst hostel I have ever seen and the second was the best I have ever seen. The first, called Hostel Ghost, aka “Number Three”, run by More Ways Than Company, is a dump. Do not stay in this place. It was unheated, filthy and generally unpleasant. (Actually, Number Three is not listed in Let’s Go, but Number Four is, and they will send you to Number Three when they are full.) The second place, called the Backpack Guesthouse, was wonderful. The front of the house is grafittied with the warning “This Place is Addictive“. Many people I met there said they never wanted to leave. One guy from Seattle had originally planned to stay only a day but wound up staying for more than three weeks. The rooms are painted with different motifs: I stayed in the Safari Room, with jungle vegetation and wild animals covering the walls and ceiling. The owners, Alex and Attilla, organize caving expeditions, can direct you to Budapest’s Turkish baths and historic monuments, and are just generally helpful and friendly. I met a number of other travelers with whom I spent the day sightseeing and the evening getting drunk on various Hungarian liquors and wines. Do stay in this place if you get the chance.

Saturday, October 8, 1994. I said goodbye to Amber, who was headed for Madrid, and drove back to Prague with two Australian guys I met at the Backpack Guesthouse. On the way, we called Eva at V. Podzamci and, needless to say, even though she was full, she had room for two more Australians.

This Bud’s For You

Monday, October 10, 1994. The western half of the Czech Republic is Bohemia, and the eastern half is Moravia. Bohemia is the birthplace of two of the world’s most famous beers: Pilsner Urquell and Budvar(better known by it’s German name, Budweiser). Czech Budweiser is a strong, yeasty beer that bears no resemblance to it’s American namesake. Pilsner Urquell is the original pilsner beer, taking it’s name from the town of Plzen where it is brewed. Today Ann and I drove from Prague to Southern Bohemia to spend a couple of hours in Czesky Krumlov, a town highly recommended by one of our guidebooks. Czesky Krumlov is a cozy, romantic little village, surrounded by a small river that arcs nearly 360 degrees. The tourist information office pointed us to a small, wood-paneled bar where they serve half-liters of the dark, potent local beer for 18 kcs (about US$0.60).

Today is the first day that Ann and I have traveled together and, fortunately, we seem very compatible. Neither of us likes to plan things too carefully and both of us are flexible when plans change. Although we had originally intended to see Budapest together, Czesky Krumlov is almost at the Austrian border, near Linz, halfway between Salzburg and Vienna. This means that, if we are heading to Munich to leave the car, Budapest is 300 km out of our way, in exactly the opposite direction. Instead we’ve decided to go to Hallstatt, Austria. I told Ann about my prior visit to Hallstatt and how beautiful it was. Hallstatt is not far out of the way and will be a good place to stop for the night.

With a Million Stars All Around

The last time I was in Hallstatt, the town was nearly empty. There were only a few other people at the hostel where I stayed. Driving back to Hallstatt, I did not have the phone number, so we just chanced it. We arrived at the hostel at about 7:30pm only to find it full. The owner was kind enough to direct us to a couple of inexpensive private pensions. This was a stroke of terrific luck. The first pension we called had a large, comfortable double room available, with a tiny balcony overlooking Lake Hallstatt. Leaning on the railing, with the Milky Way drifting overhead, we shared our first kiss.

Hallstatt is as magical as I remember it. We called tonight our “first date,” meandering through the town arm in arm, bundled up in hats and coats against a slightly chilly evening. We had dinner at the Brauhof while a choir — a family of ten or so — practiced their peaceful, angelic carols at a table nearby.

After two glorious days in Hallstatt and an afternoon sightseeing in Salzburg, we drove to Munich. My friend Dorothee has been amazingly generous and helpful on this trip. She gave us her apartment in Mauern for the night and let us leave the car there while we continue to travel.

My Girl

Okay, I’ve been holding back so far, but I suppose it’s time to tell you a little bit about Ann. Ann is 22 and from Seattle, recently graduated from the University of Washington; “U-Dub” as it’s called. She is beautiful, smart and funny, and we have really hit it off together. Ann had been traveling for a month when I met her, and intended to travel for another month before heading to London to find work. She does not plan to return to the States until next May. Now that we are traveling together, all of her plans — and my own as well — are subject to change. Of course, I will keep you posted as our trip progresses.

What’sa Matta You?

From Munich, we took a night train through Austria to Florence, Italy. In theory, you can sleep on the train and avoid wasting an entire day. In practice, you are woken up every hour or so: by border guards for passport checks, by train conductors for ticket checks, and by customs officers with german shepherds for drug checks. They don’t knock; they just throw open the door, turn on the light and blurt out something unintelligible in German or Italian. As you might expect, the Italian word for passport is “passaporta”. Status: RO

The train station in Florence was bustling. There was also some sort of demonstration or parade going on; hundreds of Italians marching, waving Soviet hammer-and-sickle flags and blowing whistles. We were also assailed by numerous locals offering cheap accommodations. Instead, we called one of the pensions listed in Let’s Go, and were told “Yes. Come.”

The nicest thing about Italy is the warm weather. After the near-freezing temperatures in Prague and Budapest last week, it is nice to be wearing shorts and T-shirts again.

We tried to spend the afternoon sightseeing, hoping to get a look at Michaelangelo’s David, or perhaps the view from the bell tower at il Duomo, the main cathedral in the center of Florence. Unfortunately, government workers were on strike. Now here is a real oddity of Italian culture. Every other day while we were in Italy, all the government employees would go on strike for four or five hours — shutting down trains, museums, state-run youth hostels, etc. — and then return to work as if nothing had happened. They know in advance when they are going to strike, and for how long, but they don’t always tell you. This has the effect of really screwing up your schedule and getting you frustrated, without making travel and sightseeing completely impossible. Eventually we did get to see David and Il Duomo, but we had to pass up the Uffizi — perhaps Italy’s most famous museum — for lack of time. In truth, we just wanted to get the hell out of Florence and away from the noise, crowds, pollution and unbelievably rude waiters .

If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out

Sunday, October 16, 1994. A short way north of Pisa, on the Italian Riviera, is an area called Cinque Terre, five picturesque little villages where you can hike, swim, drink red wine, and watch blazing Mediterranean sunsets.

Ann and I arrived in the first town, Riomaggiore, in the evening and found our way to Mama Rosa’s, a hostel recommended in one of Ann’s guidebooks. Mama Rosa’s was described as friendly and festive. In truth, it was more like a full-tilt frat-house party. If you get excited at prospect of getting butt-wasted with several dozen American college students and drinking until you pass out, you’ll really like Mama Rosa’s. But if you hope to get more than just a few hours of sleep, you really ought to stay somewhere else. Also, although Mama Rosa’s is relatively clean, her many unnamed cats have given the place a powerful stench of cat-pee.

On Monday, we took the train up to the third town, Corniglia, and lugged our packs up the long, winding brick stairway to the center of the village. There are no hotels or hostels in Corniglia, so we just wandered until we found a sign advertising private rooms for rent. There was no one home, but a large old woman carrying an unlabled bottle of wine beckoned us from across the street and led us through the twisty little pedestrian streets to another house a few blocks away. For 30,000 lire apiece (about US$20), we rented a surprisingly clean and spacious double room overlooking the hills and ocean. In the evening, we took a bottle of the local Cinque Terre white wine to the edge of town — a stone terrace at the top of a 25-meter cliff, about 100 meters from our room — and watched the sun sink into the sea with slow, flaming brushstrokes.

Cinque Terre would be an easy place to get stuck for a while. If you come to Italy, I strongly encourage you to visit Cinque Terre and see how long you can get stuck.

[Up] [Previous] [Next]

Copyright © 1994, Kenn Nesbitt

Bavaria and Austria

[Up] [Previous] [Next]

September 30, 1994. If you’re the kind of person who prefers a quiet evening at home to a rip-roaring drunken free-for-all, then Oktoberfest is definitely not for you. But if you’re the kind of person who laughs at those do-nothing homebodies, the kind of person who invites wanton bacchanalia and incoherent revelry, then stuff a knackwurst in your lederhosen and head for the biggest party in the world.

Party Like it’s 1999

Oktoberfest is so huge it borders on the inconceivable. In just two weeks, Oktoberfest sees between six and eight million visitors and rakes in roughly 350 million Deutschmarks. That means on any given day, a half a million people are getting drunk, singing, dancing on tables, peeing on trees, eating sausages and giant pretzels, surviving nauseating carnival rides, and trying to squeeze through the crowd.

I went to Oktoberfest last week with my friend Dorothee, and several of her friends. It was not at all what I expected. First of all, it’s a fair. By that I mean that it has all the trappings of the state and county fairs you probably got sick of years ago. It has dozens of rollercoasters and carnival rides, hundreds of places to fecklessly eject your money at stuffed animals and cheesy souvenirs, and equally as many chapels dedicated to the worship of hot fat and pure sugar. But Oktoberfest has three notable differences:

  1. Unlike most fairs, there are relatively few children at Oktoberfest.
  2. It is the largest fair in the world.
  3. In place of the usual livestock exhibitions and crap vendors, there are vast halls packed to the rafters with exuberant beer drinkers.

Beer, by the way, comes in only one size: a one-liter glass mug.

Oompah-pah, Oompah-pah, That’s How it Goes

We crowded around a picnic bench-style table in one of the beer halls and listened to the oompah band alternating between raucous polkas and singalong medleys. Most everybody was singing. At tables on two sides of us, people were dancing on their benches (there wasn’t enough space between tables to stand, much less dance). Every minute or two, someone would start a toast, which involves vigorously clanging your hefty beer mug with everyone else at the table, and then banging it on the table before drinking.

After a liter of beer and a pretzel the size of a dinner plate, we headed for a few of the rides. First was an enormous indoor tube-track rollercoaster called Magic Mountain. As you hurtle through the dark, you can’t help but be reminded of Disneyland’s Space Mountain. However, with the pounding techno soundtrack, lasers, and spinning cars, this was more intense. It was also more expensive; tickets were 9 DM (about US$6) each. Next, we went on this whirling, tilting, vomit machine called Take Off. For just 6 DM, you get enough g-force pressure on your innards to make you queasy for hours.

So what did I think of Oktoberfest? I suppose my reaction was pretty typical: I was both fascinated and repulsed. It’s hard not to get swept up in all the excitement. And it’s quite a hoot to see so many drunks that really really want to talk to you (one pot-bellied German man was extremely proud of his New York Marathon T-shirt, insisting that he ran the marathon, and yelling over and over again “Ich liebe New York!”). On the other hand, the smothering crowds, the outrageous prices, the people throwing up on the subway, make it a not entirely pleasant experience.

I guess I’m a little naive. I guess I was expecting fewer people (or at least more space between them), more home-style Bavarian tasties, less boisterous drunkenness. I really wasn’t prepared for the size, the crowds, and the unrelenting merchandising. Nonetheless, I expect I’ll take the plunge again next weekend when a couple of friends from Seattle are in town. Pray for me.

Oh, one more thing. I noticed this enormous statue of a woman overlooking Theresienwiese (right next to the fairground). No one in our party seemed to know what it was. I found out later this status is called Bavaria and it is the largest bronze figure ever cast. It is over 100 feet tall and hollow on the inside so you can walk up and look out through her eyes. It stands in front of Ruhmeshalle, an outdoor hall honoring famous Bavarians.

Lazing on a Sunday Afternoon

I’m staying in Mauern, in the apartment of my friend Dorothee who has gone away on vacation. Mauern is a tiny little “cow town” about 75 km northeast of Munich. It has a population of about 1000 friendly Germans, none of whom (it seems) speak English. My German is pretty poor, but I’m getting plenty of practice just doing simple things like getting an oil change or buying groceries. Instead of the “guten tag” I learned in high school German class, people in Bavaria greet one another with “Gruss Gott” (pronounced “gruse got”), which translates literally to “Greet God.” In other words: “If you die and go to Heaven, say hi to God for me.” It means more or less “hello.”

In Mauern, Dorothee introduced me to a delicious beer drink called Radler. It’s made by mixing a half-pint of weisbeer with a half-pint of Sprite. I recommend you try this recipe yourself. It’s easy to make and surprisingly good.

The thing I like most about Mauern is the quiet. It’s so quiet at night that you can hear the mosquitoes buzzing as you fall asleep. In the daytime, it’s easy to do nothing in Mauern. You can sit outside and read a book and watch the cars go by. I’ve spent a lot of time doing nothing here.

The thing I like least about Mauern is that I have found myself getting lonely. Fortunately, this has made me realize how much I like traveling with other people. It has helped me to get organized and start looking for other travelers. As a result, I’ve met a number of interesting people, which I’ll tell you about shortly.

Though Mauern is no tourist destination, it is very close to Landshut (pronounced “lahndz-hoot”). Landshut is not really a tourist destination either, but it is a quaint little 15th century town, full of cobbled streets and clean baroque facades. Landshut is also home to St. Martin’s church which, at 436 feet high is the largest brick tower in the world. Landshut is a great place to go shopping or eat lunch in an outdoor cafe on the main street of the altstadt (old town).

Ninety-Six Teardrops

Do you really want to hear about Dachau? I thought so. Okay, Dachau is a cozy little town about 25 km northwest of Munich. It has a beautiful castle and lovely old buildings. Unfortunately, Dachau is most famous for it’s WW II Nazi concentration camp which is now a memorial museum. The gates to the camp still bear the slogan “Arbeit Macht Frei”: work makes you free.

None of the original barracks are still standing. There are two reconstructed barracks which show what the originals looked like, and concrete curbs marking off the areas where the rest of the barracks stood. At the front of the camp, in the building that used to house the kitchen, is a museum that shows the rise of the Nazis, the history of the camp at Dachau and the cruel living and working conditions within the camp. In front of the museum is an enormous abstract metal sculpture of starving people writhing in agony.

At the far end of the camp there are two crematories and a gas chamber disguised as a shower room. Though it is not understood why, this gas chamber was never actually used during the war. Prisoners were sent to other camps to be exterminated. That’s not to say people didn’t die at Dachau. An estimated 32,000 people died here. They died of torture, starvation, disease, and overwork. The sick were kept in the same barracks with the healthy and the barracks were crowded to ten times their normal capacity. Also at the far end of the camp are several memorial temples and chapels, built in the mid-Sixties.

Twice daily in the museum, there is a 22-minute film presentation in English. Though there are no movies of what actually took place while the camp was operational, there are many still photos of prisoners and camp life. In addition, there is film footage of what the Allied troops discovered at Dachau at the end of the war. Thousands of emaciated prisoners, piles of hundreds of skeletal bodies waiting to be cremated.

The whole time I was in Dachau I felt like I was about to cry. It’s a strange feeling, walking on the grounds of the camp and imagining what it was like when it was operational, filled with half-dead unwashed slave/prisoners, people who had nothing but one small meal a day and work until it kills you. It’s a feeling of reverence, of empathy, and of disbelief that something so monstrous could have happened in this century.

Ice Cream Castles In the Air

In the late 19th century, King Ludwig II built three magnificent castles in Germany — and planned a fourth — before he was declared mentally ill and unfit to rule. The most famous of his castles is Schloss Neuschwanstein (Neuschwanstein Castle), near the Bavarian town of Fussen on the Austrian border. Neuschwanstein is what Walt Disney used as the model for Sleeping Beauty’s castle. You have probably seen pictures of this so-called “fairy tale castle”. Only a third of the interior of the castle was ever completed. King Ludwig and his personal doctor both mysteriously drowned the day after he was arrested, and the castle was left unfinished.

I took the castle tour through the completed rooms. I recommend this tour to anyone who is traveling in Germany, because the inside of the castle is as spectacular as the outside. In King Ludwig’s bedroom alone, seven woodcarvers worked for four years to carve the bed and the room’s intricate molding. Most of the castle’s inside walls are gorgeously painted with scenes from Wagnerian operas.

After the tour of Schloss Neuschwanstein I struck up a conversation with an Australian couple Michael and Bronwen, who were backpacking through Europe. They said they were going to take a bus back to Munich, so I offered them a lift. Over dinner, they told me they were headed next to a small salt mining town in Austria called Hallstatt. I had read about this town, where they give you tours of the salt mines, so I asked if I could join them for a few days. They agreed.

The next day we drove to Austria. Our first stop was Salzburg, to have a look at Mozart’s birthplace. My friend Stan says that your reaction to a place greatly depends on the experiences you have there. He and his wife loved Salzburg because of the concerts they attended and the people they met. Perhaps if we had taken the “Sound of Music Tour” or spent more than just a few hours in Salzburg I might have felt differently, but I have to say I wasn’t impressed. Salzburg is just another big city, and everyone seems to be trying to make a buck off the name Mozart. After a quick look around the town, we pushed on to Hallstatt.

I Can’t Get it Out of My Head

Hallstatt, Austria sits on the edge of a clear deep lake surrounded by mountains rising over 2000 meters, with nearly vertical rock faces. You can walk the length of the town’s cobbled streets in 10 minutes, but it will probably take all day as you will be awestruck by the location’s scenic beauty and the coziness of the traditional Austrian houses and shops.

Michael, Bronwen and I came into Hallstatt at about 8 pm. It was so dark outside that we didn’t realize there were mountains here. With the help of some local kids, we found the youth hostel, but the people from reception had left early. The rooms that were open were occupied by a group of Australians, but there were a few extra bunks, so we made ourselves at home. The next morning when we walked outside we were blown away by the view. Hallstatt may well be the most beautiful place in the entire world. It is certainly the most beautiful place I have ever seen.

I should mention that Hallstatt is apparently overrun by tourists in the summer and winter months, but the spring and fall are pretty quiet. This was a good time to visit; the weather was perfect and the hotels were nearly empty. Beds in the hostel were 100 AS (Austrian Shillings, about US$9).

Hallstatt has been a salt mining town for over 3000 years. Today, with the aid of modern technology, they extract 25 tons of salt per hour from the mountain. We rode a tram up the mountain and took the tour of the salt mine. They give you a salt miner’s uniform to put on over your clothes, and take you for a one hour tour through the mine shafts, highlighted by a long train ride into the mountain, slides through sloping shafts, and a multi-lingual video presentation explaining how the salt is extracted.

During breakfast in a nearby restaurant, we met a couple of young American women, Jen and Christie, who are spending two months backpacking through Europe. After taking the salt mine tour we bumped into Jen and Christie again (not hard to do in a town this small), hiking in the mountains. We agreed to meet for dinner later in the evening. Dinner was Austrian culinary magic at a gemutlich — i.e., pleasant, cozy, warm and rustic — restaurant called Brauhof, on the lake’s edge. We arranged to meet up in Prague next Tuesday, along with another pair of Australians, Bernie and Claire. In the meantime, Michael and Bronwen would go to Amsterdam, Jen and Christie would go to Vienna, and I would go back to Munich to meet my friends from Seattle who were seeing Oktoberfest at the end of a month-long tour of Russia and Eastern Europe.

I’m now back in Mauern getting ready for my trip to Prague. After meeting so many backpackers and seeing how they travel, I’ve bought my own rucksack and a new pair of boots. I am considering seeing the Greek islands and Turkey. If I do, I will store my car and switch to trains and boats for a while.

[Up] [Previous] [Next]

Copyright © 1994, Kenn Nesbitt

Germany and Belgium

[Up] [Previous] [Next]

September 7, 1994. I have read many travel articles where the author was running late and nearly missed a train or a connection but, of course, I never thought it would happen to me! Last night I stayed out until 1:30am, even though my ferry was leaving at 8:00am. I should know better. I set four separate alarms on my watch and slept through every one of them. I woke at 7:25am, thinking that the alarms had not yet gone off. When I looked at the clock, I panicked. My ferry was leaving the port in 35 minutes. I hadn’t packed, I still needed to check out of the hotel, my car was in the parking lot a block from the hotel, and the port was a 15 minute drive away. I laid back down and gnawed over my options.

My choices were either to throw away my US$300+ ferry ticket and make reservations for another day, or throw away the ticket and spend two or three days driving to Germany through Poland, or run like hell and try to catch the ferry. In two minutes I was out of bed, frantically dressing and stuffing things into my suitcase.

I called the receptionist, told her I had overslept and was running to catch the ferry. I asked them to check me out while I finished packing. When I got to the reception desk, my bill was 1130 EEK, but I only had 900. I threw in 100 DM and she quickly calculated the exchange rate and gave me back 578 EEK. Then I walked as quickly as I could with my luggage to the parking lot down the street. I made it to the port at 7:52am. The guard was a little irate that I had arrived after the 7:20am check-in time, but he examined my passport and auto registration, and ushered me on the ferry. I made it!

The best news of the morning is that, although I reserved a bunk in a three-person cabin, expecting to share it with two other passengers, I have the entire cabin to myself.

The trip from Tallinn to Travemunde takes 36 hours and the entire ferry is constantly vibrating. This makes my bunk sort of like Magic Fingers with an unlimited supply of quarters. I am sleeping in the belly of a giant purring cat.

Three Sailors Went to Sea Sea Sea

The ferry ride is dull beyond description. I spend most of my time in my cabin, since the only entertainment the ferry provides is video poker and foreign movies in the bar. Also, I’ve caught a cold and I’m feeling generally miserable.

On the second day of the trip, a couple of hours before docking, I overhear a young man and woman speaking English in the cafeteria, so I ask to join them. His name is Yvan and he is from Belgium. She is from Hamburg and her name is Ulriche (pronounced ool-REE-keh). She has been studying at the university in Tartu for the last year and, as she speaks, she frequently lapses from English into Estonian.

Yvan has been traveling for three weeks and has run out of money. He plans to hitchhike back to Belgium. Ulriche says she is not sure how she will get from Travemunde to Hamburg. After 36 hours of solitary confinement, I feel gleefully selfish offering them both a ride to Hamburg.

In Hamburg, we drop Ulriche at the Hauptbahnhof (the central train station) and, after getting hopelessly lost searching for the campground/hostel where Yvan plans to stay, he and I end up sharing a double room at the Hotel Terminus. I’m not happy with the name of the hotel, as this was also the name of a documentary film about the Nazi war criminal Klaus Barbi. Nevertheless, the Hotel Terminus is in a convenient location and, at 90 DM a night (about US$60), the rooms are inexpensive by German standards. I think the term “flophouse” applies.

Don’t Fear the Reaper

Boy am I dense! If you have ever seen a bottle of St. Pauli Girl beer, you probably remember the buxom young fraulein on the label, cheerfully toting a pair of frothy mugs. I always pictured her as a symbol of wholesome innocence, like the Dutch milkmaid on a bar of chocolate. Wrong. The young woman immortalized on St. Pauli Girl’s label is the prostitute of the Reeperbahn, the main boulevard in the Hamburg district of St. Pauli.

Reeperbahn is described as the “world’s most sinful mile.” World’s sleaziest mile would be more accurate. In truth, it is nothing more than a lot of peep shows and dildo shops. Venturing off the Reeperbahn, however, you wade knee-deep into sin with a capital “S”, resplendent in all its carnal glory. Although on Reeperbahn there is nary a hooker in sight, St. Pauli’s narrow side-streets have so many streetwalkers you can hardly wangle past as they aggressively vie for your business. This scene you might expect to see in Bangkok or Amsterdam but, to me, it seems oddly out of place in affluent and conservative Hamburg.

The most surreal street in St. Pauli is the infamous Herbertstrasse. This tiny thoroughfare, just one block long, is closed to cars, children and women. You see, Herbertstrasse houses nothing but brothels. Wearing sexy white lingerie and bathed in fluorescent black-light, Hamburg’s most beautiful prostitutes line the front windows, beckoning you to come sample their wares. The strange dreamlike quality of Herbertstrasse evokes a couple of vivid images for me. The first is of the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland, with its grizzled animatronic ghosts awash in fluorescent green and violet. The second is of beef and sausages hung in the sidewalk windows of a New York butcher shop; here in St. Pauli sex is just another business.

Art for Art’s Sake, Money for God’s Sake

After a nice long sleep at the Hotel Terminus, Yvan and I go out in search of breakfast. Restaurant prices are so high that we opt for some fruit and bread from a local market. I should mention that I offered to give Yvan a ride to Koln, since it’s about halfway to Munich and close to his home. He said that if I wanted to see Belgium, I could stay with him in Liege. (In Germany, Liege is called Luttich. I’m not sure what it’s called in English.) Koln is nearly on the Belgian border, and Liege is only 50 km on the other side, so I accept.

Next we plan what to see in Munich. My guidebook recommends the Kunsthalle as one of the finest museums in Germany, so we decide to check it out. The Kunsthalle is showing an exhibit of 19th and 20th century paintings and sculptures from the Guggenheim in New York. The exhibit includes works by Picasso, Kandinsky, Miro, etc. I dig the Kandinskys, but my favorite piece at the exhibit is a triptych called “Three Studies for a Crucifiction” by Francis Bacon. Although these paintings are abstract, there are recognizable human forms that have been vivisected and disemboweled; it strikes you with tremendous emotional force. I tell Yvan it makes me feel like meat. He agrees.

Liege is about 600 km from Hamburg but, at 150 km/hour or faster, it is a reasonable drive. I’m glad now that I bought the BMW. Even at 180 km/hour (about 110 mph), it’s quiet and comfortable.

We stop in Koln so Yvan can call his parents and let them know we are coming. He has been gone for three weeks and we will be arriving at 11:00pm, and he doesn’t want to surprise them. My guidebook recommends the Koln Dom Cathedral as one of the sights worth seeing. This is an egregious understatement. Admittedly, there are a lot of magnificent cathedrals in Europe, and maybe I just haven’t seen enough of them to become jaded, but the Koln Dom is a jaw-dropper. It is like an enormous cavern turned inside-out, with massive stalactites becoming great spires; like some extrordinary drip sandcastle that took hundreds of years to build. The inside is supposed to be equally impressive, but we are here at night and the cathedral is closed. If you ever get anywhere near Koln, you must come see this building.

On the Border

When we cross the Belgian border I am surprised that there are no border guards, no passport check, no customs. It has been this way throughout the European Community for two years now. Today, traveling among western European countries is much like going from one state to another in the U.S.

Yvan jokes that the two man-made structures you can see from outer space are the Great Wall of China and the Belgian highway system. There is more than just a little truth in this joke. At night, the highways in Belgium are lit up like daytime. They use those yellow, low-power sodium vapor lamps every two meters or so, the entire length of every highway. The only way it could be any brighter would be to switch to white lamps.

We arrive in Liege on the weekend of the 50th anniversary of the liberation of the city by American troops. There are Belgian and American flags flying together throughout the city. We spend Saturday afternoon exploring Liege, and Saturday night we join his parents at home for dinner. Also there is a woman who is celebrating her 69th birthday, a friend of the family. Most of the conversation is in French and I do my best to follow it. Yvan occassionally tells me what’s going on and he translates when I want to interject something. Yvan’s mother is a superb cook, the conversation is edifying and, despite the language difficulty, I have a wonderful time.

Sunday morning, I heft my bags into the car and thank everyone for their hospitality. I promise Yvan, who will be studying in Spain next semester that, if I make it to Spain on this trip, I will come see him. And now I’m on my way to Munich.

[Up] [Previous] [Next]

Copyright © 1994, Kenn Nesbitt

The Baltics

[Up] [Previous] [Next]

August 24, 1994. I make arrangements with Family Hotel Services in Tallinn for a room in Riga and another in Vilnius, five days apiece. Then I go to the Chinese restaurant next door for lunch, before hitting the road to Latvia. Family Hotel Services — like their competitor, Bed and Breakfast — is a Baltic service that hooks up travelers with people who rent out rooms in their homes. The average rate is US$10 per night. I’m staying in more expensive places, US$15, because these homes have certain advantages; they speak English, or the are near the city center, or they have a secure place where I can park my car. Of the US$15, the family sees US$7. Breakfast is extra.

Now why is it so inexpensive? Because, to the families who rent out their rooms, US$7 is a lot of money. In Estonia, the average monthly income is US$145. In Latvia, it’s about US$160. In Lithuania, it’s US$80. Latvians actually seem to be the poorest because prices there are typically three or four times higher than in Estonia or Lithuania. This is mostly the result of high import tariffs and value-added taxes.

The Chinese restaurant, one of only a couple in Tallinn, is probably only in business for lack of competition. The restaurant is clean and the service is adequate, but the food is bland and heavy with oil. After a spring roll and a greasy plate of noodles, I’m off to Riga.

Steppin’ Out

The 300 km drive from Tallinn to Riga takes about four hours. The speed limit is 90 km/hour in the country and 50 km/hour in towns and cities. There is no such thing as a freeway in Estonia (though Latvia and Lithuania do have a few) and the main roads pass through small towns every 20 or 30 km. The border crossing requires four separate stops. If you’ve crossed the border between America and either Canada or Mexico, you know that none of these countries care what you are taking out of the country. To go to Mexico, you don’t need to talk to U.S. officials. In the Baltics, you talk to Customs and Passport Control for the country you are leaving, and then Customs and Passport Control for the country you are entering. Mainly they are interested in writing down your license plate number as part of an ineffective attempt to catch stolen vehicles. In addition, it is against the law to export items considered to be of cultural significance.

One of the big news items this week was the recovery of 3 kg of smuggled Uranium in Estonia. Apparently, Estonia is the prime transit route for smuggling radioactive material out of Russia. When nuclear scientists and border guards have incomes barely at the level of subsistance, bribery is pretty simple. A couple hundred bucks to look the other way and they’ve doubled or tripled their income for the month.

Hitchin’ a Ride

There are a lot of hitchhikers in the Baltics. Hitchhiking is apparently a common way to get from one town to the next, since it is cheaper than the bus or train. This would not seem unusual except that there are just as many women hitchhiking as men. In fact, just outside of Tartu on the road to Tallinn, the young women often dress provacatively to make it easier to catch a lift.

Coming from America, where hitchhiking is considered unsafe — and downright suicidal for women — this is both surprising and refreshing. On the road from the Estonian border to Riga, I gave a lift to an old woman and her daughter and grandson. They were going six kilometers; home from the store. The young boy stared at me the whole time with a look of wonderment. I think maybe he had never seen anyone who didn’t speak Latvian. The women smiled a lot and tried to say a few things in English.


Riga’s Old City is picturesque, but the rest of the city is pretty scary. Riga is the largest city in the Baltics, and it is terribly run down. The roads are in bad condition everywhere and the government has no money to repair them. For that matter, Latvia actually has no government right now. A couple of months ago, the existing goverment abdicated power, and a new government has not been established yet. Of course, people are still running the country but, officially, there is no government. Riga also has a terrible pollution problem, with over half of the city’s sewage flowing untreated into the Daugava river and Riga’s bay.

I stayed in the home of a wonderful young Latvian couple. The fact that they are Latvian is somewhat surprising because Riga is two-thirds Russian. They gave up their bedroom to me and slept in the living room. One thing I had to adjust to is a lack of hot water during the day. Hot water was only turned on in the morning, until about 9:00am, and after 5:00pm. When it was on, it was just a trickle. Bathing was a real chore. Still, this was better than the apartment in Tallinn that had no hot water at all. Bathing from a pot of warm water is even harder.

This couple took me to a small town called Sigulda. Sigulda is described as Latvia’s Switzerland. This is a ridiculous exaggeration, but Sigulda does have a more dramatic landscape than the rest of this flat country. They have skiing in the winter. In the summer, people bungy jump from an aerial tram over the river.

Sigulda is a popular hiking spot, with lots of trails and many small caves. Legend has it that a young woman known as the Rose of Turida used to meet her lover, the castle gardener, in one of these caves. When a suitor lured her to the cave with a forged note from the gardener, she told him that she would give him her magical scarf if he would let her go. The scarf was a powerful shield she said and, to prove it, he could swing his sword at her. His sword killed her, and the suitor ran and hid in another of the caves. Today visitors place flowers at Turida Rose’s gravestone, under the trees that were supposedly planted by the gardener. The caves are made of a soft stone, covered with carved grafitti from the last century.


In Lithuania, I stayed in the home of a retired Polish couple who spoke no English. The woman spoke a little German, and we communicated in broken German with the aid of English-German and Russian-German dictionaries. I remember a bit of German from high-school, but only enough to get a hotel room or a meal.

I was told I might find Vilnius depressing, so I was surprised at how much I actually liked it. The people seem friendly and hospitable, and the city center is quite charming, if not as old and magnificent as Riga’s or Tallinn’s. Perhaps the most striking thing about Vilnius is the number of churches. Looking at the cityscape, you can count at least a dozen spires rising from the city center. Inside, these churches are some of the most lavish and ornamental I have seen.

They say Vilnius was founded when Gediminas camped here on a hunting trip and dreamed of an iron wolf with the howl of a hundred wolves. He took this to mean that he must build an impregnable fortress, as strong as a hundred wolves. The city was built around Gediminas Hill, atop of which sits Gediminas Tower, part of the old fortress which now houses a museum. While in Lithuania, I also visited the town of Trakai. Trakai is built on a peninsula in a lake about 30 km west of Vilnius. At the end of the peninsula, on a small island connected by a footbridge, is a large, well-restored brick castle. The history museum in the castle has an impressive collection of artifacts, arranged chronologically, dating from the middle ages to the early part of this century.

This was the last really nice day I saw in the Baltics. In Trakai, I laid on the grass and watched people rowing and paddle-boating on the lake. The next day the weather turned cold and it began to rain. It has stayed that way most of the time since.

The eight-hour drive back to Tartu, Estonia was interrupted only by a couple of difficult border crossings. At the Latvian border, the ten or so cars in front of me took about an hour to cross. The border guards were in no hurry. At the Estonian border in Volga, I tried three different border crossings before I found the right one where I would be allowed to cross. The border guards spoke no English, but some Estonians coming the other way were kind enough to lead me to the right crossing.

Light My Fire

The three cultural traditions of which Estonians seem most proud are their folk costumes, their folk songs, and their saunas (pronounced “sow-nah”). An Estonian sauna is a unique experience. The sauna itself is usually a small wooden building, like a tiny log cabin. Inside the front door is a small anteroom. This functions much like a decompression chamber; it is a place to cool off without going outside and it keeps the hot air from escaping entirely. The main room of the sauna is just large enough for a brick, wood-burning stove and boiler, plus some wooden benches where you sit and work up a sweat. There are stones on top of the stove for making steam. Here’s how it works. First you start a fire and let it burn for a few hours. The fire has to heat up the entire structure, as well as the air inside. By the time you go in, the inside air temperature is about 100 degrees celcius. That’s right, boiling temperature!

You go in naked and sit for a while to work up a good sweat. When you can no longer stand it, you go to the anteroom and cool off for a bit. Then you go back in, pour hot water on the stones for plenty of steam, and beat yourself vigorously with a large whisk made of birch leaves.

We took a sauna at Eerik’s summer cottage; a small farmhouse in the country near Oteapaa. This being my first time in a sauna, Eerik lent a hand. He poured the water on the stones and beat me with the whisk while I lay on the wooden bench. Well the pain of the whisk and the raw steam hitting my body was more than I could endure. I panicked. Without really knowing what I was doing, I jumped off the bench and ran outside. I may have been screaming something like “I gotta get outta here!” Eerik was confused. He really had no idea why I left. Meantime, our companion Wally, who was sitting in the outside room waiting for his turn to get beaten, was probably getting worried, since he had never experience this either.

After a few minutes to cool off, we tried it again. This time, Eerik was a little slower with the whisk. It was extremely intense, but tolerable. After an all-over beating we went outside and Eerik doused me with a large pan of cold water. Again, intense. I understand that, during the winter, they go outside and roll in the snow.

After the sauna, we made dinner with Eerik’s mom. Barbequed pork, Chicago-style pizza, roast sausages, tomato salad, boiled beans from their garden, beer. Wonderful.

Sometimes a Banana is Just a Banana

September 6, 1994. Estonia is truly a small country. I don’t just mean the fact that they have a population of only a million people with their own language and culture. I mean that things happen here that simply don’t happen in larger countries.

First, I find that often when I meet someone, they know the other people I have met. Several times I have met two people independently — in different cities, even — only to find out that they know one another. In one case, I met a man in Otepaa and a woman in Tallinn and, a week later, saw them walk into a bar together. I would chalk it up to coincidence, except that things like this happen again and again.

Second, in a country this small, people in high places are not as insulated as they are in larger countries. Last night I was at Hell Hunt having drinks with people from the Foreign Ministry. At 1:00am, the Chief of Policy Planning made a phone call and then said she had to go meet with the President. I drove her and a colleauge to the President’s manor. They said I could come in and meet him if I liked, but it didn’t seem appropriate. I’m just a tourist, but they were there to discuss business.

Also, coincidentally, two different people have jokingly speculated that I probably work for the CIA — The Pickle Factory, I’m told it’s called — because technically savvy Americans just don’t show up and hang around with no apparent source of income for long periods of time. I must be a spy. Tomorrow morning, I’m taking a ferry to Germany. I plan to spend a couple of days in Hamburg and then head to Munich for Oktoberfest.

[Up] [Previous] [Next]

Copyright © 1994, Kenn Nesbitt


[Up] [Previous] [Next]

August 17, 1994. Russian Mafia are easy to spot. They drive mostly Mercedes or occasionally a new Opel, usually with dark tinted windows. Their cars are always immaculate. They wear suits — sometimes flashy outfits with purple sportcoats, modern-day zoot-suits — with cellular phones dangling conspicuously from their belts. They are young, clean-cut and tough-looking. And they are everywhere.

They seem to hang out in the city center. They relax in expensive cafes and chat with one another, or perhaps with a sexy girlfriend. When the phone rings, they always get up and walk outside. I don’t know if this is because of bad reception or so that they can be seen using their cellular phone, their symbol of wealth.

Can’t Buy Me Love

This week, while trying to find a hotel near Pirita, a seaside area 6 km east of Tallinn, my friend Eerik (pronounced like “Eric”, but with a trilled “r”) and I accidentally wound up at a Mafia-run whorehouse. (Eerik, I should mention, I met at the Irish pub in Puhejarv where I left off in the last installment. I’ll tell you more about him and his girlfriend Kristiin in a moment.) In the office of this small, grimy orange motel — the Rumma Velodroomil — eight or ten large Russian men in suits sat around a coffee table. The desk clerk wore a very tight, short black dress and white fishnet stockings. Eerik spoke with her in Russian and she showed us a couple of rooms. He then thanked her and told her we would keep looking. As we left, he explained “It’s a brothel.” While I was oblivious to their conversation, she was telling him that they have women for 350 EEK per hour (about US$29). She assured him that if I didn’t need the room all night, I didn’t need to stay. Very creepy.

While we are in the neighborhood, I should tell you that the jammin’est disco in Tallinn is a place called Piraat (that’s Estonian for “pirate”) right next door to the Hotell Pirita. Piraat is large, loud and crowded. If it’s nightlife you crave, reserve a room at the Hotell Pirita and walk over to Piraat after 10:00pm. Another good discotheque is Lucky Luke’s Saloon at the Tallinn port. It is half the size of Piraat, but still quite fun.

Thank You For Being a Friend

Necessity is the mother of all battles, to coin a mixed metaphor. Traveling solo — being alone most of the time — creates a need to meet people, and the necessity itself seems to make it happen.

I never thought of myself as being good at meeting new people. I am finding, though, that I am meeting lots of people. There seem to be two reasons: first, I am more inclined to make an effort to connect with strangers and, second, others seem to be interested in me when they hear about my journey. In the last two weeks I have met a number of wonderful people, both Estonians and foreign expatriates.

The day after arriving in Puhejarv, I saw the pub’s owner, Liam, speaking with several people outside on the deck. Knowing that Liam spoke only English, I decided to join them. Liam introduced me to Eerik and Kristiin (pronounced like “Christine”, but with a trilled “r” and the accent on the first syllable) and two of their friends from Tartu. The six of us had dinner together, plus several beers and whiskeys, and then went for a jump into any icy-cold lake in our underwear. I think this is what’s known as a rollicking good time.

Eerik mentioned that he was taking his vacation the following weekend and going to Parnu and Saaremaa. Parnu is a beach resort in southwestern Estonia and Saaremaa is the largest of Estonia’s islands; several people have told me these are the most beautiful places in Estonia. Since I was planning to go to Parnu, I suggested we go together. We agreed to meet on Friday.

During the week, I met with the man who established Estonia’s satellite Internet connections to the West. He told me numerous stories about the politics of setting up digital links to Sweden and Finland during the fall of the Soviet Union. He chose a “Gordian knot” approach to the problem. Just do what needs to be done — to hell with the bureaucracy — and sort out the problems afterward. I will tell you about our conversation — and about the introduction of the Internet in the Baltics — in a future article.

On The Road Again

Friday, Eerik, Kristiin and I drove first to Haapsalu and then to Parnu. We arrived in Haapsalu during the “Days of the White Lady”. The White Lady was the lover of a man in the piiskopilinnus, the bishop’s castle. She was bricked into the castle walls for the crime of entering the male-only castle. During the August full-moon, her ghost is said to appear in the cathedral window. The Days of the White Lady is a big festival in Haapsalu, with plays and concerts staged on the castle grounds. Despite the festival, Haapsalu is still a small and sleepy village; after a picnic lunch and a play at the castle, we decided to push on to Parnu.

This week, Parnu hosts the Finn Cup Sailing Championship. The final race is Saturday. Since we planned to see the race, we looked a place to stay. We chose our hotel by its price: 60 EEK for a single, 120 for a double. That’s US$5 and US$10. My room was not much larger than a Chinese shoebox. No phones, no TV, no towels, no soap. Shared toilet and shower. Noisy at night and not terribly clean. Hot water only in the morning. This hotel is not in my guidebooks and, as far as I can tell, it has no name. If you would like to try this place, it’s at Roosi 4a, behind the kauplus (shop).

I should mention that, compared to most of Estonia, Parnu is very beautiful. Houses are well cared for, yards are tended, streets are clean. Parnu has lots of parks and a gorgeous beach. The beautifully remodeled Rannahotell is right on the beach, with rooms starting at a whopping US$80 a night. Despite the high room rates, their elegant restaurant is surprisingly inexpensive.

After a rest, we went in search of nightlife. Parnu has two discos: Hamilton and Miraz. Hamilton is small and uninteresting. Miraz (pronounced “Mirage”) is a mecca by comparison, but still pretty lame next to Piraat or Lucky Luke’s in Tallinn.

Sailing Away

For us, the sailing championship was a fiasco. The boat from which we watched the race broke down after the first leg. We did not see the remainder of the race, but just drifted for several hours until another boat came and towed us in. Our boat was good-sized, with perhaps two dozen other passengers. We had paid 50 EEK apiece for tickets but, naturally, our money was not refunded.

Island Life

During the Soviet occupation, Estonian citizens needed a visa to see to the island of Saaremaa. Saaremaa was the westernmost point in the Soviet Union, and the home of Russia’s early-warning radar installations. Today the radar bases are gone and Estonians can visit Saaremaa as easily as any other part of Estonia. For 40 EEK per car, a ferry takes you to the smaller island of Muhu which, in turn, is connected by bridge to Saaremaa.

Kuressaare is the largest city on Saaremaa and it is becoming an attractive spot for tourists, now that the island is open. There is an outdoor market in the center of town where local women sell handmade woolen sweaters and socks, amber necklaces, and knickknacks carved from dolomite.

Kuressaare grew up around an impressive and well-preserved castle, built in the mid 14th century. Today the castle houses a history museum and a nature museum. The history museum is filled with old weaponry, furniture, photographs, etc. Unfortunately, the descriptions are only in Estonian and Russian. The nature museum is a taxidermists heaven, with stuffed deer and moose, flamingos and seagulls, boars and porcupines; dozens, if not hundreds of animals, representing all of the local wildlife. This nature museum is apparently newer, because the descriptions here are also in English.

We ate dinner on the third floor of a restaurant built inside a large stone windmill. The local beers, Saaremaa Olu and Kuressaare Olu, are potent and tasty. Saaremaa also has its own local blackbread, Saaremaa leib, and cheese, Saaremaa juust. The bread is one of many subtle variations of the dense, hard ryebread that is found on nearly every restaurant table in Estonia. The cheese is remarkably like Monterey Jack. Once again, though, dinner was a plate of fries, a few vegetables, and a chunk of meat. Originality does not seem to be a virtue among Estonian chefs.

As in Parnu, we chose our hotel in Kuressaare by its price; 100 EEK per person (that’s US$8 to you and me). This place was spartan, but still a big step up from our hotel in Parnu. Clean rooms, comfortable beds, private bathrooms with plenty of hot water, and concrete walls for a quiet sleep. According to an instruction card on the desk, “If there are any disorders in your room announce it to the administrator, please.” We returned to Tallinn on Monday, and on Wednesday I left for Latvia.

[Up] [Previous] [Next]

Copyright © 1994, Kenn Nesbitt


[Up] [Previous] [Next]

August 8, 1994. We have email. We have email! I’ll tell you about more about that in a minute.

Foreign countries, especially non-Western foreign countries, can be confusing. I am in Tallinn, Estonia, which is perhaps the most Westernized city in all of the former Soviet Union. A great many people here speak English or German. Nonetheless, the first few days can be like a trip to the moon. After that, things slowly begin to make sense.

Let me tell you a little of what I have seen here. Although Tallinn is the crumbling and decrepit victim of 50 years of Soviet occupation, it has some truly outstanding features. First is a medieval old town unrivaled in all of Europe. Despite a bombing raid by the Soviet army in 1944 that destroyed 40% of the housing in Tallinn, the old city is very much intact. Today the old city is alive with the sound of hammers and workmen, restoring many of the buildings that have fallen into disrepair. When the state owned all the buildings, nothing ever got fixed. Now that they are in private hands, repairs are going on everywhere.

Another outstanding feature of Tallinn today is the opportunity. Everywhere entrepreneurs are grabbing their new-found freedom and turning a buck with it. This is not to say that the people here are wealthy; most, in fact, are very poor and have a real problem stretching their income to meet their expenses. A free market economy has created very distinct upper and lower classes. You can see it on the street: Estonian Yuppies make deals on cell-phones from their Mercedes, retired pensioners try to get by on US$20 a month.

Baby, You Can Drive My Car

I am fortunate that I have had quite a bit of help from an Estonian native. With his assistance, I have managed to buy a car — a 1982 BMW — and get it registered and insured. I do not recommend you try this unless you absolutely have to. If you think the California DMV is bad, the Estonian Autoregistri is like some bizarre mating of a Russian breadline and a Turkish Bazaar. You have absolutely no idea what is going on, but there are a dozen different forms to complete and several different lines to wait in. On top of this, you must have Estonian residency papers to register a car here. Lacking these, I had to get special permission from the head of the Estonian automobile registry and the head of the local registry office before I could even begin the process. Registering involved paying three different taxes — for what, I have no idea — and waiting for several hours sandwiched among a bunch of fat, sweaty Russians. But it’s done, and I’m mobile. All that is left is to install a hefty alarm; car theft is a big problem here.

Ricki, Don’t Lose That Number

Back to the email. The phones in Estonia — how can I put it? — suck bad. There are three kinds of common phones in Estonia. First are the telephones you find in homes and hotels. These are suitable for voice communications, but more or less useless for data.

The second are common payphones. These are ubiquitous gray metal booths on which is stenciled the word “Telefon”. They were made to accept rubles but, since the phone company does not have the money to convert them, they can now be used for free. Like regular telephones, they are suitable for local voice calls, but useless for anything else.

The third kind of phones are the new, orange payphones labeled Eesti Telefon. These phones use a special phone card that you can usually purchase somewhere nearby. A 16 krooni card (about US$1.30) will give you about 2 hours of local calling time. However, trying to connect your notebook PC to an email service at a payphone is not the easiest thing in the world. Here’s the trick. First, you must have an acoustic coupler for your modem. Mine came from Unlimited Systems in San Diego, California; they make good equipment and I recommend them highly. Next, find a phone with nearby seating. My favorite so far is in the lobby of the Hotell Mihkli on Endla street. It is installed right next to a sofa. You can sit down with your notebook while you transmit. Of course, this got me some amazed looks from the hotel staff who told me, in their halting English, that this is the first time they have seen a computer used on a phone. Lastly, although these phones seem to dial using the same tones as American phones, they do not recognize the tones when they are played into the receiver by a computer. You will have to tell your communications program to connect as it normally would, but then dial the number manually. This seems to work.

CompuServe has a local access number in Tallinn. If all you need is email, CompuServe is a good choice here. Access is provided through SprintNet, a computer network owned by U.S. Sprint. Connecting via SprintNet is an adventure in itself, so let me give you this rule of thumb: if you plan to travel and use CompuServe for email, make sure you get a copy of the access telephone numbers and all instructions for connecting before you leave your home country. Oddly, my contact here was surprised and happy to hear that CompuServe has a local access number in Tallinn. His company had been calling Germany to connect.

One Bourbon, One Scotch, and One Beer

Every day in Estonia is a new opportunity to drink alcohol. Drinking seems to be the national sport. A bottle of Finlandia Vodka that costs US$29.00 in Finland, costs US$6.00 here. Local vodka can be had for about US$3.00 a bottle. The “most popular drink in Estonia,” according to my unofficial sources, is called Gin Long Drink. It is gin and tonic in a can, available for 8 or 9 krooni (about US$0.75) at every restaurant, bar, grocery store, street kiosk, fast food joint and bus stop in Tallinn. Anywhere you can buy a candy bar or a Coke, you can buy a Gin Long Drink. It’s not bad, by the way.

The national beer, Saku, comes in several different varieties — all of them mediocre. And, so far, all of the food here is equally mediocre. A Brit whom I met at lunch yesterday told me “You don’t come here for the food.” Basically, there seems to be one meal in Estonia, with slight variations. It consists of a plate of french fries with sliced tomatoes and cucumbers on one side and a slab of meat — pork beef or chicken — on top of the fries. In many places they will add some form of cabbage salad or fried vegetables to this. I have had this meal in different places almost every day so far. I am surprised, though, because I always I am ordering something different. I think the name for this meal literally translates to “gut bomb.”

Hit the Road, Jack

August 12, 1994. Tartu, Estonia is 200 km southeast of Tallinn and home to the most well known university in Estonia, founded in 1632. Now that I have registered, insured and put an alarm on my car, I am beginning to see this country. I am staying for a couple of days in the home of a talkative Estonian woman 2 km north of Tartu. Her home is remarkably clean and well maintained, and her English is unusually difficult to understand. She is friendly and hospitable, but talks like a machine-gun. Next month she goes back to the university for her second semester of much-needed English lessons.

Back in the USSR

This morning I met with the networking manager of the University to discuss Estonia’s connections to the Internet. You see, three years ago there was no Internet in Estonia. Three years ago you would have to get official permission well in advance just to use a photocopier which, naturally, were kept locked and well guarded. This was to prevent the spread of subversive ideas. Today, you can walk into any of a dozen buildings around the town square in Tartu and download the U.S. constitution or explicit nude photographs or instructions for building an atomic bomb. All the world’s “subversive” ideas are now so ripe they are falling from the trees.

Three years ago, Western visitors were not allowed to stay overnight in Tartu, presumably to keep them from spying on the nearby airfield, which was the largest in the Soviet Union. Today, there are many new hotels and restaurants in Tartu, and the airfield is abandoned.

I have already met several Americans who are here to consult with the Estonian local governments about the nature of democracy. One couple gave me a tour of the Supreme Court building and the Tartu History Museum. At night we went to a local restaurant/bar/casino/disco and talked about Estonia, while the college students danced and smoked cigarettes.

Enjoy the Silence

August 14, 1994. At a lake called Puhajarv, just outside of the small town of Otepaa, about 60 km southeast of Tartu, there is a small pub and inn called Kolga-Oru. The inn is small, but the rooms are modern and comfortable. This is the nicest hotel I have found so far. The pub plays Irish music and serves Guinness on tap. Kolga-Oru was built by an Irishman who came for a visit and was so taken with the place, he never went back; I don’t blame him. Yesterday I rented a rowboat for 15 krooni (about US$1.20), paddled out into the lake and relaxed in the sun for an hour. This place is quiet, wooded and peaceful. I’m beginning to really enjoy this trip.

[Up] [Previous] [Next]

Copyright © 1994, Kenn Nesbitt


[Up] [Previous] [Next]

July 25, 1994. Boxing up a two-bedroom apartment is no small task. I have been working away at it for a week, one room — or a portion of a room — at a time. Yesterday I finished the kitchen. Today I am working on my office. I can spend days neatly packing things into boxes, and then whisk it all down to the self-store in half an hour.

My apartment is a complete mess. Every flat surface — tables, counters, bed — is strewn with orphaned knickknacks, books, papers, old clothes I should have thrown out long ago, things that weren’t valuable enough to make it into the boxes. In seven days, this apartment will be empty. The walls will be bare, the carpets cleaned, the furniture gone; just like the day I moved in, as if I had never lived here at all. Two weeks from now, someone else will live here and call it home. Someone else will own the Honda I have been driving for nine years, and they will call it theirs. Someone else will step in to fill whatever vacuum I am leaving in Portland.

Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing

I awoke last night at four AM, startled by the thought that I will be leaving in one week. In one week I will be on a plane from Seattle to Copenhagen and then another plane from Copenhagen to Tallinn, Estonia. The thought would be exhilarating if I were looking forward to a simple vacation. Knowing that I am leaving the United States for up to a year is downright scary. A thought like that can give you a jolt of adrenaline strong enough to wake you from a sound sleep.

Another recurring thought I am having is about the safety of traveling in these countries. I am told that Poland is very dangerous right now. The people are extremely poor and crime is escalating. Car theft and robbery, even highway banditry, are apparently a problem. Friends from Poland have told me that now is a bad time to go there. In Russia, newspapers report that “gangsters” are riding the overnight trains and breaking into sleeper cars to rob the passengers. Today I read that the Matyas Templom (Matthias Church), one of Budapest’s most popular tourist attractions, was bombed earlier this week. No one was hurt, but several stained glass windows and parts of the building were damaged. I am reminded, though, of the scare in Florida last year when several German tourists were killed. Florida tourism dropped sharply as most European travelers made other plans. Despite the bad publicity that Florida got in Germany, I expect that, overall, Florida is still a safe place to visit. Maybe this is a good analogy, maybe it isn’t. It is at least comforting. I will know more when I get there.

Thanks for the Memories

For the last few days I have been reading a travelogue by Evelyn and Mark Leeper, an American Jewish couple from New Jersey who document their travels so thoroughly, I find myself wondering how they still have time to see anything. This year they began their travels in the Baltic states. Their description of a few weeks in these three small countries fills nearly a hundred pages. They were kind enough to email me the Baltic portion of their travelogue. I will surely be indebted to them for their insights and their verbosity. I must also acknowledge David Loftus and his wife Carol who shared with me their pictures from a recent three-week trip to Estonia, and told me about their experiences. Their beautiful photographs have made me eager to start.

Whoops, Here It Is!

Kenn Nesbitt Ready to Go August 1, 1994. I am very tired. I can’t tell if the tiredness is from a full day of moving furniture yesterday, or if it is the emotional toll of leaving home. I am surprised at the number of people who are crying as they board the plane. They kiss their friends and relatives tearfully at the gate, clearly unhappy to be leaving. I guess I am not the only one who finds this draining. Perhaps I am naive, but I didn’t expect to feel sad about leaving.

Another surprise is the number of Internauts — presumably readers of soc.culture.baltics — who sent email to wish me well or offer helpful suggestions the last day or two before my trip. I believe there is something exaggeratory about cyberspace. In cyberspace, people have fewer inhibitions and fears about talking with complete strangers. As a result, angry, spiteful people become more outspoken and confrontational, while kind and generous people will often go out of their way to be helpful.

It’s my turn to get on the plane. The flight is now boarding and the announcer has called out my row. Now the trip begins.

[Up] [Previous] [Next]

Copyright © 1994, Kenn Nesbitt

Countdown to Exit Strategy

[Up] [Next]

Portland, Oregon, July 1994. Life is too rich to watch it slip by from inside your cubicle. Your life is too important to sell it to that company you work for. You know it’s true. Do it now before it’s too late. Quit your job. Sell your car. Put your things in storage. Get a one-year plane ticket. See the world.

That was the idea.

Today is July 18, 1994. In the last two weeks I quit my job, gave up my apartment, and said goodbye to my friends. Two weeks from now I will do something truly crazy. On August 1, will board a plane bound for a country I’ve never been to. I will travel for a year and I will write about it. I will get lonely and homesick; I will smell bad and have trouble finding healthy foods; I will have difficulties that I could never predict. I will also meet wonderful people and make new friends; I will discover the best beer I have ever tasted; and, with any luck, I will find out what rewards life offers the intrepid.

Maybe I can’t convince you to quit your job. Maybe I can’t convince you to sell your car and head into the unknown. Maybe I don’t need to. After all, I’m not doing this for you. In fact, I don’t know exactly why I am doing it, except that I believe the trip will explain itself along the way.

This column is many things: it is a chronicle of my trip, it is a periodic letter to family and friends, it is souvenir to look back on when I am old, it is a catharsis. Nonetheless, it is good to have you along. Please feel welcome to join me from your living room or your cubicle, or wherever you happen to be, and live vicariously for a time.

Make a New Plan, Stan

Here’s the plan. Starting in the Baltic nation of Estonia, I will travel for a year through Eastern Europe. Though I have no itinerary, I expect to spend time in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, the Czech Republic,Hungary and Romania. I may also see Slovakia, Bulgaria, the Ukraine and Germany. During this year, I will earn a living writing computer-related articles for a handful of trade magazines, something I have been doing in my spare time for several years now. In order to write, I am taking with me a small notebook computer — a Compaq Contura Aero — and I expect to spend a fair bit of time hunting for Internet access.

I will buy a car in Tallinn, Estonia — perhaps an old Ford or Opel or Fiat — drive it for a year, and sell it when I am done.

After a year of travel, I expect to return to Portland, Oregon, to go back to the business of leading an ordinary life. Until then, open up world, I’m climbing in!

Well, How Did I Get Here?

Before I actually get started, let me fill you in on some background. Like, who am I, why did I come up with this crazy idea, what job did I quit to do this, and what have I been doing to prepare?

My name is Kenn Nesbitt. I am an American and, like most Americans, I have spent my life blissfully ignorant of the rest of the world. I speak no foreign languages, I know very little of other cultures. And, until last year, I had never been off the North American continent.

My girlfriend at that time — an enchanting Hungarian woman — and I spent two weeks in Budapest, Hungary, and parts of Southern Germany. That was all it took. Now I’m hooked and I must see more. She enrolled in a university in Budapest for her next school year and she and I were to spend a year in Hungary. In May of this year, she and I broke up. I am still spending a year abroad. However, instead of just going to Budapest, I will travel and see a little more of the world

I am 32 years old and I make my living as a computer consultant and writer. Until two weeks ago, I worked for Microsoft Consulting Services, a division of Microsoft that helps companies develop client/server business database systems and other software. It was a very good job, as jobs go, but I still felt I was trading my life for a steady paycheck. Call it what you will: gen-X angst, a sense of immurement, or simple wanderlust. In truth, I could no longer justify the eight-to-five grind, having seen something of the richness and wonder the world has to offer. Pandora’s box is open and, since it cannot be closed, I am compelled to explore the contents.

Ready, Steady, Go!

My life is now a series of checklists. Get immunizations. Cancel telephone and electricity. Photocopy passport. Get traveler’s checks. If you’ve traveled abroad, you know what I’m talking about. Fortunately, I have help. Every travel guide has an extensive section on preparing for your trip.

I have two travel guides, both published earlier this year: ‘The Lonely Planet Survival Guide for the Baltic States’ and ‘Eastern Europe On the Loose’. They recommend, among other things, taking your own clothes line and detergent, pictures of family and friends, and plenty of Pepto Bismol. They also offer a rule of thumb: ‘take half as much luggage and twice as much money’.

What they wouldn’t know to recommend is a Radio Shack tone dialer for checking U.S. voice mail, and an acoustic coupler for using a modem on European phones. From the experience of my last trip, I am also taking, as gifts, American cigarettes (not Marlboros, which are plentiful in Eastern Europe) and Hershey bars.

Now all I have left to do is to sell my car and to finish putting everything else into storage. Trust me, this is no small task.

Gotta Get Yourself Connected

I will write this travelogue every two weeks. For those of you who are reading this as email or hardcopy or on Usenet, if you have full Internet access, fire up Mosaic or Lynx and paddle over to You will find the web version of this document much fatter, with graphics and hyperlinks to web servers in each of the countries I’ve mentioned. I am posting this first column to a handful of newsgroups as well as the CompuServe travel forum just to let you know about this new www travel column. If you would like me to continue to post to a specific newsgroup or forum, or if you would like me to add you to my mailing list, please drop me a line. In the meantime, I have some packing to do. See you in two weeks!

[Up] [Next]

Copyright © 1994, Kenn Nesbitt