Saturday, February 25, 2012

Prague with Serdar


Prague is as beautiful as everyone says it is. Definitely worth visiting, if old European cities is your passion. We stayed in a large hostel right in the center of the city, only a half block from the famous Astrological Clock, which has an elaborate display when it chimes the hour (with crowds of tourists in front of it taking pictures). We had a 4-bed room in the hostel, and for the first two nights, we had the room to ourselves. On our third and last night, we shared it with two young women from South America. All four floors of the hostel were filled that night, and I think maybe there were 200 people staying there—all forty years younger than me (or so it seemed). But I didn’t really care—I enjoyed some quiet time in the room after walking around all day in the intense cold. Serdar joined the nightly pub crawls, but didn’t find them as much fun as in Krakow—too many people. One night we went to a classical musical performance in a beautiful old building with wonderful acoustics. Though it was clearly a bit of a tourist trap—there were only eight musicians and just a handful of tourists in the audience—I still loved listening to the famous classical pieces being played in such an exquisite environment.

We spent our time walking around the four old quarters of Prague, exploring the castle located on a hill high above the city, strolling across the famous Charles Bridge, going to museums, checking out the incredible cathedrals, the old Jewish section, a lovely park. It really is a wonderful city to explore and just wander the winding, cobblestone streets. Unfortunately, the bone chilling cold made that not as much fun as it might have been in better weather, but it did keep the tourists crowds down. Though I was surprised at how many tourists there were, given it was the dead of winter and not a holiday. I can only imagine what it must be like in the summer, and I don’t think I would like the experience. I realized on this trip that something I had thought was true about myself is indeed true—I really am not much of a tourist in the traditional sense. I like seeing all the old historic buildings, museums, etc. but given a choice between a city and nature, I would choose nature every time. And one of the most gratifying things about the trip for me was that by the end of it, Serdar said the same thing, that he too missed spending time in nature. We tried to figure out how to do a day trip to the mountains, but it was just too far away. Though next time… that will be our first priority.

One of the things I did really love about the city aspect of this trip was the chance to eat some of the foods I miss living in Ukraine—real bagels, great coffee everywhere, Vietnamese and Chinese food, and vegetarian restaurants, one of which was across from our hostel in Prague and had kind of an all-you-could-eat happy hour. And the Czech beer wasn’t so bad either.

We reversed our transportation back—train from Prague to Poland and then plane from Poland to Kyiv. I put Serdar on an afternoon train back to Simferopol and then I went and crashed at the hostel. I spent the next three days in Kyiv at the Peace Corps office doing all the medical checkup stuff necessary for approval for extension—all okay—and then I too got on the train back to Simferopol. It was such a treat to get back home on Thursday morning and to be with the rest of the family once again.

It’s a couple of weeks later now as I write this. Despite the stresses of the cold, the visa hassles, the unknowns of traveling with Serdar, I think ultimately it served the purpose that I wanted for the trip—to give Serdar the opportunity to see life outside of his country, to meet other young people from different countries and continents, to open up his mind to worlds beyond his own. Tall order for such a short trip, I know, but it did, I think, give him a taste of different ways of living. But of course, like that old song “how do you keep them down on the farm after they’ve seen gay Paree” (which my dad used to sing about World War II), Serdar came back longing to live elsewhere and hating even more the difficulties of life in Ukraine. But, who knows, it could also have the effect of increasing his determination to make change in Ukraine. Only time will tell.
As for me, though at times in the course of the trip I wondered what the hell I was doing, in the end it brought me closer to Serdar and to my life here in Crimea.

Monday, February 13, 2012

The winter cold and Krakow with Serdar


Monday morning, alone in the house. Having a day to myself before taking off tonight on the second stage of my three weeks of traveling. It is such a treat to have the house to myself—doesn’t happen all that often.

So—Krakow, Prague, traveling with Serdar, the weather, Kyiv, visa hassles. So much seems to have happened in a short period of time. All of the events of the past two weeks are permeated by one significant factor—the impact of the severe cold. It has made traveling difficult in many ways and is the topic everywhere as Europe, and especially Eastern Europe, suffers under a continual deep freeze. Down here in Crimea the infrastructure is just not equipped to deal with winter weather like this. The deep snows in eastern Crimea remained unplowed from the lack of snow removal equipment, many villages—such as Lenura’s parents—do not have electricity, heating systems are inadequate, and water pipes are unprotected so many people are without water, including us in the evenings. Luckily, our house is toasty warm with the exception of my room which is the coldest in the house because of where it is located. I have to bundle up in blankets to hang out in there. But that isn’t much of a hardship—I spend much of my time downstairs, which is where I am now.

The trip with Serdar was hard on many levels and great on many levels. It started with our overnight train trip up to Kyiv, arriving early in the morning and then off to the hostel where we were staying the night. The hostel was filled with Peace Corps Volunteers returning from a language refresher course, and Serdar immediately took up with them and went off to a cafĂ© for bagels. One of my few PC friends happened to be at the hostel too, so we did a little sightseeing together. Serdar meanwhile went off on his own, wandering around the city, and eventually all of us met up for dinner. He spent the evening sharing a beer with the owner of the hostel—a good beginning to what I hoped would be a world-opening experience for him.

We took a taxi early the next morning (4am!) out to the airport for our hour flight to Katowice, Poland, which is about a 90 minute bus ride from Krakow. We were flying a discount Hungarian airline called Wizzair, and that is the closest city they flew into. Despite Serdar having a passport and his Shengen visa (which allows entrance to all the EU countries except the British Isles), we were both nervous about the fact that his last name on his passport is spelled different than on his plane ticket. I bought the ticket before he got his passport, and as apparently happens often, his name ended up being spelled differently on the passport because of the Russian/Ukrainian translation into English. “y” becomes “I”, a double “I” appeared. A fellow train passenger thought it was going to be a big problem, the owner of the hostel thought not. And then there was also just the stress of the border guards at Poland checking his passport, etc. This is his first time of travelling internationally and neither of us knew what to expect. I kept reassuring him that all would be okay, but my reassurances didn’t do a lot to reduce our anxiety. But all went well, and we both breathed a huge sigh of relief as we finally walked out of the airport in Poland into a new world for Serdar.

We were both exhausted, cold, hungry, and thus cranky, by the time we got to Krakow. We were immediately greeted by a huge indoor mall, very much like you would find in America. Quite strange. But we eventually found our way to the other side and exited out into old Krakow and made out way to the hostel. A word about hostels—they are great for young people, as it is a chance to meet fellow, mostly student, travelers, but for old folks like me, well… I find them a bit trying. I was very glad for Serdar and knew it was the right choice as I saw him immediately engage with the South American, European, and Australian young people staying at the hostel, but for me, I became somewhat lonely for people closer to my age that I could talk with. There is also the party aspect to hostels—in many hostels every night there are organized pub crawls, or beer/vodka tastings, or whatever the local flavor is. Having just turned legal drinking age, these were great opportunities for Serdar (as he saw it) to party with other young people. Eventually I saw it as an opportunity for me to have some time to myself, so I guess ultimately it worked out. Though I told Serdar that maybe next time we travel together, I will drop him off at a hostel and go stay at a B-and-B.

Krakow was a wonderful city to visit. I wish we had had more time there and that it wasn’t so cold to walk around. We spent three full days there, leaving the third night on an overnight train to Prague. The first day we wandered around on our own, the second day we went on a guided three-hour walking tour of the city, the third day we went on a guided bus excursion to Auschwitz and Birkenau, about an hour from Krakow. I had had many reservations about going to Auschwitz, especially once I arrived in Krakow and saw what a tourist industry it had become—everywhere there were signs advertising tours to Auschwitz. I also had read the comments of the founder of the local Jewish museum who feels that the government needed to shut down the tours to Auschwitz and just let people go there on their own with no cameras and no cell phones. But if it was something Serdar would want to do, then I definitely would go—Ukrainian students seem to learn so little about the Holocaust and of course, Auschwitz is the most famous site. So we ended up going, and I am glad we did. Though the tour was rushed for me--I would definitely have liked to linger longer at some places-- I think the experience was, ultimately, a profound one. Especially being in the vastness of the Birkenau camp--standing on the railroad tracks that brought the train cars of people to their deaths, feeling the frigid wind that people had to endure with little clothing, seeing the dilapidated barracks and wooden plank bunks where people slept six to a bunk, and the long rows of concrete latrines, and trying to imagine being there amongst 100,000 people who had lost their homes, families, loved ones, everything….I felt both a deep sadness that human beings could bring this kind of suffering onto their fellow humans and also amazement that anyone survived these conditions. And perhaps a little deeper understanding of the human spirit.

On to our visit to Prague in my next post.