Friday, July 19, 2013

The City with Scars

When I think about my trip across Europe through the lens of what my expectations were for each country, Poland is the one that was not only the most “blank”, but also turned out to be most unlike what few pre-formed impressions I had before we set foot there.

Enjoying some raspberries
My very first thought when getting off of the train was, “Such a gorgeous day!” That may sound kind of unremarkable, but after living for 5 years in a polluted megacity, being in an urban environment that is so full of green and with clear, blue skies is something that makes quite an impact. In fact, after we checked in with our hosts, we could not help but take our time walking to the subway. We stopped at a fruit stand near the train station, relaxed in the warm sun and indulged in some (what felt like) decadent snacking as we waiting for our train into the city center.

Our goal for the first day was to walk around the Old Town section of the city. And by “Old” I mean older than Beverly Hills 90210, but not Hill Street Blues.

A little too perfect?
Warsaw’s Old Town is gorgeous. Tragically, it is merely a reproduction of what it looked like before the Nazis leveled it during WWII. As you walk around, everything is so clean and beautiful… it reminded me of a Disney version of a city. It was true to its original form, to be sure, but it had an unmistakable aura of “fakeness”. It was too perfect.

Seeing such painstaking recreations all around, it made me think about just how traumatic WWII was. On top of all of the devastation and lives destroyed, the loss of so much physical history in such an ancient country must have taken an incredible toll on the population, which was made ever more horrible by the Soviet occupation that followed.

An aerial view of Old Town after the war on display in the city castle museum.
Part of my erroneous (if limited) expectations of Poland came from this period of Soviet occupation. Having come of age during the Cold War, my mind was filled with images of gray buildings, potholed streets and drooped shoulders on uniformly-dressed people. Now, before you go getting all “But that all ended back in 1989,” on me, I KNOW that these ideas/images come from what amounts to a generation ago. I wasn’t really expecting to see an ex-Soviet satellite still grappling with crushing poverty and colorless facades everywhere. But it was all that I had.

And it’s not only me. Since my visit there, every time I’ve told folks how much I loved Poland, almost to a person they’ve been surprised. It’s not that there is a pervasive feeling out there that Poland is a crappy place to go, but people generally have no idea what to expect. It has no reputation.

The Warsaw Uprising Museum
Warsaw was like a big wake up call. On my first day I was learning that the city was not only lousy with history, much like my hometown, but that it has eerie memorials to it all over the place, of which Old Town was only the biggest. After a stop for lunch (where I was completely blown away by the food and some incredible hard cider), we went over to the city’s museum dedicated to the Uprising in 1944.

This was an awesome place, though I had actually assumed that it would be dedicated to not just the 1944 city-wide uprising, but also to the Jewish ghetto uprising in 1943. There was acknowledgement of the ghetto and the resistance there at the start of the museum, but it was more to set the stage for what came later.

The Red occupation.
For history buffs like us, it was an incredible place to lose ourselves in… which we promptly did. (This would not be the first museum that we ended up spending much more time in than we had originally budgeted.) Full of incredible artifacts and detailed testimonies of what happened during the tragic battle to liberate Warsaw from the inside, it was an exciting, moving place. The final exhibit, which acknowledges the Soviet occupation that came right after the rebellion had been crushed (and the city had been leveled as punishment by the retreating Nazi forces). It was a wonderfully evocative space that brings home the tragedy of what happened.

Just down the street from this space came what was to be my only disappointment with Poland: The Ghetto. Or, rather, the lack of it.

Only a couple of blocks from where the beautiful Uprising museum stood as a monument to heroic resistance against the Nazis, the spot where the Jews of the day made their stand -and, arguably, inspired the city-wide revolt more than a year later- has only a marker on the sidewalk and a plaque on a wall to bring attention to it.

A memorial map of the Ghetto,
giving an idea of how small it was.
Marking the wall of the Jewish
Ghetto that stood from 1940-1943

When we came across this comparatively insignificant remembrance, I remembered the warnings of some of my Jewish friends who had told me that when they’d visited Poland they detected a slight, yet clearly present, undercurrent of anti-Semitism still in the air. It made me sad.

(NOTE: This lapse was partially rectified earlier this year by the opening of the new Warsaw Jewish Museum in the area.)

After some more walking around the city we finally headed back to our hosts’ home, where we enjoyed an awesome dinner with them and shared some lovely conversation. It was such a fantastic way to end an incredible (and tiring!) day.

On day 2 we decided to rent some bikes, and it turned out to be an awesome choice. We set off early and did a kind of circuit around Old Town, venturing out into the gorgeous parks and along the city’s river. I was blown away by just how wonderful Warsaw’s green spaces were, and moved by how many reminders of WWII there were everywhere.

The mine-clearers' memorial.
Scattered all across the city are markers and monuments. Some are small, while others can be quite large. They commemorate everything from specific atrocities committed by “Hitlerites” (I love how the Poles decided to call the invaders that, instead of “Germans”), to soldiers who were killed while trying to clear the city of mines.

Our final stop on the second day was at what would be the first in a series of what I ended up calling our “Holocaust Guilt Trip,” the Pawiak detention center and transfer depot,

Since it was closed on that day, the place was abandoned and almost empty, save for a single Chinese tourist who wandered through while we were there. This seemed fitting somehow, as it was a very haunting place; a crowed would have seemed wrong. We took our time and soaked it all in. Being the history junkie that I am I knew that I’d be totally engrossed by WWII sites like this, but I wasn’t really prepared for the utter sorrow that the place evoked.


It was kind of like I was outside myself. I am aware that all of this happened in the past, so there is nothing that I can do about it. Part of me said that I shouldn’t feel saddened or angry by it, but another part of me wanted to feel it. I wanted to bear witness to what happened, in whatever limited way that I could.

And so we lingered.

After a while we drifted back towards our bikes for the ride back to the cafĂ© where we’d rented them in the morning, but we decided to stop in one more beautiful park along the way, to kind of balance out the sadness that we’d just dipped ourselves into. As if on cue, however, a rainstorm blew in and caused us to take shelter under a building on the edge of the park, forcing us to sit and stew with our dark feelings for a little while longer.

Eventually the clouds passed and we got our time in the lush beauty of yet another park before it was time to head home for the night. And as we stepped off of the train to walk back to our hosts’ home we were greeted with a brilliant rainbow, and I couldn’t help but feel like this was Warsaw in a nutshell: Gorgeous spaces with dark shadows that sometimes creep up on you, but that are never around for long before the sun returns to push them back again.

I wondered what our next stop, Gdansk, could possibly have in store to top this physically and emotionally exhausting city.
Wake me when we get to Gdansk!
*NOTE: To see the full-size version of the pictures included here and the entire album of photos from our time in Warsaw, with lots more details and stories, click here.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Interregnum: My Night in Europe’s Last Dictatorship

On a trip that would take us across a continent exclusively by rail, when all was said and done it came as a surprise that the nicest ride that we had ended up being our first. The journey from Moscow to Warsaw can take two routes: Through the Baltic states and down through Poland, or a more-or-less straight shot that cuts through Belarus. Given our schedule and the fact that we didn’t want to have to change trains in the middle of the night, we opted for the train that goes through the heart of Europe’s last remaining dictatorship.

This decision had ramifications well before we ever stepped onto our flight out of Beijing. Being the isolated, totalitarian state that it is, Belarus is one of the few countries in Europe -including Russia- that requires Americans to get permission to enter in advance. (Conversely, its close ties with Moscow made it the only place along our route that Alya did NOT need a visa to enter. It’s kind of like Russia’s Canada that way.) This meant that I had to apply for a visa at the Belorussian embassy in Beijing.

Since the country is so isolated there isn’t much demand for visas. As a result, the visa section is tiny: just 1 desk with a single consular assigned to it part time. I had to take a day off from work and go to the embassy early to make sure that I didn’t get stuck in a long line. I didn’t, but I was told that the fee for the visa would be just under ¥1,100. Mind you, I was applying for a transit visa that would not actually allow me to get off of the overnight train at any of the stops. In effect, I was being charged an exorbitant toll to pass through the country on my way to Poland.

It seemed so very silly until I realized partway through the process that given the many trade restrictions placed upon the country, visa fees are a key way that the regime can obtain foreign currency. I makes sense. It’s stupid and self-defeating, but it makes sense.

Combined with the fee for my Russian visa -which was ¥1,400 for 2 days- the cost of transit permissions on my first stops alone was almost as much as the plane ticket from Beijing to Moscow.

None of this was on my mind as we set off, though. I was barely keeping my eyes open when the boarding call came and we embarked. I’d had a long night out partying and walking along the Moskva River the night before, and then an early morning getting up to meet Alya’s family for brunch. I was looking forward to sleeping through most of our 13-hour trip and arriving in Warsaw refreshed.

Our cabin was quite spacious. Designed for 3 passengers, one side had a couch that converted into a bed and two fold-out beds stowed against the wall above it. The other side consisted of a wide closet, a sink and a small table. There were only 2 of us so it felt like a perfect -if cozy- fit.

My body wanted nothing more than to lay right down and go to sleep, but Alya wasn’t tired (she’d had a full night’s sleep) and I was excited and wanted to chat for a bit. After a little while Alya couldn’t wait to unwrap the pizza that her mother had made for us and dig in. I love Alya’s mom’s cooking, so I could hardly blame her.

Yummy stuffed Russian pizza!
After just a few bites it was off to dreamland for me, though. I slept solidly all of the way through Belarus, until we came to the border crossing… which is where things got interesting.

We pulled into the station at Brest, which lies just across of the border from Poland, at about 3:30am. The first thing that struck me as odd was the fact that we’d gone through all of Belarus without a visa check. Why not stop us at the Russian border to check our passports?

Immigration agents got onto the train and went from cabin to cabin. The agent who came to our door was a gruff, mean-looking (and sounding) older woman. In the US we’d call her a “battle axe”. (I had fun explaining that one to Alya.) She barked at us in Belorussian and we handed over our passports. She took them and added them to the large pile that she was already holding and then, after a few questions about illegal items that we should not have, she moved on to the next cabin. Eventually she got off of the train and took everybody’s passports back to an immigration office somewhere while we waited.

This is when the train pulled into warehouse of sorts where we’d have to change undercarriages.

This part needs a bit of explanation: Back in pre-WWII days, the Russians changed the width of their train tracks and made them smaller than what was then the de-facto European standard. This was a strategy to slow the advance of German troops and materiel during an expected invasion. The standards have never been changed. Today, this means that whenever a train crosses the border between Russia and Europe they need to swap out their undercarriages.

This process went car by car and took at least 2 hours. Afterwards, the train rolled back into the main station with a wider set of wheels, the immigration officials came back on and handed our passports back to us, with entry and exit stamps added, and we were on our way.

Within a few minutes we were crossing into Poland… and being shadowed by immigration officers.

It's the fuzz!
The difference in architecture and level of wealth from one side of the border to the other was stark. We went from neat, yet small, homes in hamlets on one side, to familiar McMansions and nice cars in suburban subdivisions on the other, all in a matter of moments. It truly was like passing into another world. Given the obvious difference in living standards, I can understand the need for the Poles to be vigilant about people trying to cross into their country secretly. If I lived right across a river from what looked like a land of riches compared to my hardscrabble existence, I would probably try to get to the other side, too.

Logically, unlike in Belarus, we pulled into a train station minutes after crossing into Poland. Customs officers were all lined up on the platform, decked out in heavy gear. The agent that covered our car came to the door much more quickly than his Belorussian counterpart had, and I quickly saw why: Instead of collecting passports and taking them off somewhere, he had a small box strapped to his belt. It looked like a big credit card reader but it turned out to be a device that let him swipe passports and pull up our information and display it on a screen strapped to his arm. He took one look at my US passport, swiped it, double-checked my photo, put a stamp in it, handed it back to me, smiled and said, “Welcome to Poland,” in accented English.

Alya’s check-in took an extra moment as he checked her visa, but within a matter of a couple of minutes we had both been registered as having entered Europe. It was a shockingly pleasant experience, especially when compared with the inefficient, brusque service that we'd received a few hours before. 

Within about 30 minutes we were on our way again. The rest of the journey was uneventful and I marveled at the beauty of Poland as I looked out the window at the countryside sliding by. The vast expanses of plains and small rolling hills covered in lush, fertile green were striking. I’d done plenty of reading up on all of the countries that we would be visiting on our tip and I expected the scenery to be that of a breadbasket of a country, but my subconscious was still expecting everything to be in shades of gray.

You can take a kid out of the Cold War, but you can’t take the Cold War propaganda out of the kid.

As we finally pulled into a station on the edge of Warsaw I got ever more excited. I could hardly contain my thrill. I’d been worked up to the point of sleeplessness before Alya and I took our flight to Moscow, but that was a place that I had already been to. It was her home turf. We were surrounded by her family and friends.

And so we stepped off of the train into the bright, clear Warsaw morning, into a city -and a country- that neither of us had ever seen before. I finally felt like our adventure was really starting.

So... Now what?

Monday, July 15, 2013

Back In the U.S.S.R.

The cheapest ticket that you can buy from Beijing to any city in Europe is to Moscow. This is fortunate, since Alya’s family and friends are all there (or in the surrounding area). We found an amazing deal on Siberian Airlines for just ¥1,800 per person. So… lucky us. The catch? We had to leave Beijing at 3:00am.

No problem. We just figured that we’d take a nap in the evening before heading out to the airport. But, as is often the case, neither of us could sleep the night before our journey was to begin. So, after a sleepless night, followed by an afternoon of last-minute packing and a goodbye dinner with my oldest Beijing buddy and his wife, we were off to the airport.

We took the final express train from the city center at 10:30pm, which gave us 4+ hours to cool our heels at the check-in counter.

Waiting for the check-in
counter to open.
Once we were aboard and on our way the flight was actually quite pleasant. To an American like myself the words “cheapest flight possible” and “Siberian Airlines” in the same sentence brings up images of propeller-powered planes with duct tape holding one of the pop blades together and rancid, moldy food being served. The experience could not have been farther from that idea. The staff was uncharacteristically (for Russians) friendly and the food was a significant step up from merely palatable. Even the change of planes in Ekaterinburg was better than a typical entry in Moscow. Though my first views out the window after landing certainly gave me pause:

Yes, those are derelict 
airplanes alongside 
the runway in 
The rusted-out railway car alongside the runway in
Ekaterinburg. I'm sure that makes perfect sense to
whomever decided to leave it there.

I’d previously been to Moscow almost 2 years earlier, in October of 2010, on a mission to court Alya (and her parents) and I’d had an amazing time. During that trip I fulfilled a life-long dream to visit the capitol of what had been the evil, ominous Soviet Union during my youth. It was an epoch-defining experience in many ways- not the least of which was that I had landed an impossibly gorgeous woman as a girlfriend. I hit all of the big tourist spots (maybe I’ll re-visit that trip in a post someday) but I missed out on 2 things that I had been dying to do: Stroll through Gorky Park and hit a crazy nightclub. This stop, in addition to allowing Alya & I to touch base with friends and family in the city, was pretty much planned specifically so that I could check those two items off of my Moscow To-Do list.

Once we landed in the Red Capitol it was off to our friend Vitaly’s place. He lived in the House on the Embankment on Bolotny Island, an amazing strip of land in the middle of the Moskva River, smack in between the Kremlin and The Cathedral of Christ the Savior. It’s a prime location, and his apartment was in a quite a famous building. Commissioned by Stalin back in 1929, it was designed by famed architect Boris Iofan. It had been built to house high and mid-level government ministers within sight of the Kremlin. It became infamous after one of Stalin’s paranoid purges, when NKVD and party security agents would visit the complex each night in the wee hours and “disappear” whichever bureaucrat had displeased the feared leader that week.

Vitaly’s apartment had once been the vice minister of Transportation’s quarters. It just so happened that he survived the purges and after Stalin died he kept the place and his family continued to occupy it for the next 60-odd years until ownership of it reverted to his family after the Soviet Union fell. For a child of the Cold War, my accommodations could not have been cooler.

One our first day, after a few hours’ nap at Vitaly’s, Alya and I set off to meet her dear friend Anna for an evening stroll in Gorky Park. The weather was absolutely gorgeous (a condition that would repeat itself across the continent) and I walked around with them in nostalgic ecstasy with The Scorpions’ anthem “Winds of Change” repeating over and over in my head.

It certainly wouldn't be the last time while in Eastern Europe that I'd hear that generation-defining ballad's distinctive whistling echoing in my ears. And the music went along so well with the gorgeous surroundings of the park. It is a jewel in the center of the city.


After meeting up with Vitaly for an absurdly expensive sushi dinner (by Beijing standards, anyway) it was back to his place for some sleep. The next night we would tackle my second goal for our Moscow stop.

After a day of walking around the city visiting art museums and doing some gift shopping, it was time to hit the clubs. Luckily, Bolotny Island is a nightlife hub, with a number of the hottest clubs in the city located at the other end of the island.

Before setting out, however, we did some down and dirty pre-gaming. Our merry band of debauchers gathered under the Christ The Savior footbridge, busted out the vodka and paper cups and got our buzz on white trash style.

True to our form, we got denied entry to the first club that we tried to get into, the appropriately racistly-named “Gipsy.” We went to the club next door, though, got in with no problem, went up to their rooftop and danced until the wee hours.

Towards sunrise I ended up taking a long walk down the Moskva river with Alya’s brother, Marat, and my friend Tanya. I finally stumbled back home at about 7am, scarfed down some food and took what amounted to a 2 hour nap, as Alya and I had to get up early to meet Marat and her parents before we caught our train to Poland.

We ended up having brunch at the first place that I’d eaten at during my first trip to Moscow 2 years prior, a fun little spot called “Soup.” We talked for hours and it was such a lovely, comfortable experience that I hated to leave them. I can never thank Alya’s family enough for always making me, an uncouth, barely-cultured American, feel welcome… And I’ll never be able to thank Alya’s mother enough for the delicious, homemade Russian deep-dish pizza that she made for our overnight ride to Warsaw. YUM!

*NOTE: To see the full album of photos from our time in Moscow, with lots more details and stories, click here.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Trying to Recapture The Flame

It’s been exactly one year since my then-girlfriend Alya and I set out on a 5-week journey across Europe to the Olympics in London. I’d originally intended to blog extensively about the trip as soon as I got back to Beijing (I even posted a short “preview” piece that you can see here), but life kind of got in the way.

If you’re even a semi-regular reader of this blog you know that I can be long-winded, especially when I have something to say. And of this trip I have many thoughts and observations that I wanted to get down. Combine that with 1,000+ photos to curate and arrange into albums and the task turned into one of near-epic proportions. I’ve been chipping away at it little by little over the past 10 months and I’ve completed the task at a serendipitous moment. As I look back exactly 12 months at what was an incredible experience of exploration and self-discovery I’m finally ready to start publishing these posts.

The seeds for this adventure were planted in a moment of euphoria. In the afterglow of the 2008 Olympics, somewhere around day 4 of my post-Games recovery period, I made the decision: I’m doing every Olympics from now on.

Beijing in 2008 was a magical place. The city had gone through an urban renewal and expansion project on a scale that had been unseen since Rome’s rebuilding after Nero’s little concert on a hill. It was a city buzzing with excitement, drunk with giddiness and proud as hell to be “coming out” to the world. I was a first-time expat when I arrived on the day of the Opening Ceremony and I couldn’t help but be overwhelmed by it all.

I was guy who had never lived more than a mile from my childhood home and all of a sudden I was standing in the middle of the world’s biggest stage, in a city basking in the limelight of a million visitors and two billion television viewers. Saying that I’d gone from Maybury to Manhattan only begins to describe the kind of cultural whiplash that I was feeling. After all, I’d grown up on the streets of a big city and had made at least a hundred trips to New York, a dozen to Montreal, several to Chicago and Atlanta and even a couple of swings through Hong Kong. I knew big cities, but this was “urban” on a different scale than anything I’d experienced before.

I remember that the foreign-ness of the place was almost overwhelming. I’d traveled through China before, but I’d never intended to live there. How would I buy things? WHERE would I buy things? What would I do if I got lost? I didn’t speak the language at all. How would I learn?

When I landed on 8/8/08 I had just about all of my worldly possessions in a couple of bags. I’d quit my job, said goodbye to my friends and walked away from the love of my life. I was a blank slate, excited and open to anything… but I was also scared shitless.

The Olympics were the best time for somebody in my state to land in Beijing. The openness of the locals, the helpfulness of the volunteers and the accessibility of everything allowed me to get swept up in the Olympic Spirit and enjoy a “soft landing” into my new city.

I admit it; I was susceptible to the allure of all of the hokey, cheesy, tree-hugging Olympic stuff. Within a few days and after attending a few events I was totally buying into Beijing’s slogan, “One World, One Dream”. I was grasping at straws. I knew that I was going along to get along, but it didn’t matter. I got a glow in my gut and a smile that wouldn’t stop until after the flame was extinguished. (I still feel echoes of it whenever I watch a replay of the Opening or Closing ceremonies from that year.) Within days of them ending I had vowed to travel to every Summer Games from then on.

I was hopelessly hooked.

Fast forward 4 years and I found myself at the Beijing airport once again, this time with my girlfriend Alya waiting for our flight to take us to Europe, giddy with excitement at the thought of trekking across the continent and ending up in London in time for the Olympics.

Our journey would take us through Russia, Poland, Germany, Denmark, Holland and Belgium before arriving in London. Then, before going back to Beijing, we’d treat ourselves to a weekend in Paris. You know, for the heck of it.

I blogged the hell out of the Games back in 2008 and my plan was to do the same this time around. This trip turned out to be about a lot more than chasing past feelings of excitement and acceptance; this time I was on a long journey of discovery, visiting countries that I’d only ever read about, meeting old friends and strangers alike, and exploring what it means to share the road with somebody.

Boy did I ever learn a lot. After it was over I had a lot of writing to do.