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Monday, September 30

I've done it again - written several posts which will now appear backwards. If you've already read yesterday's, then skip to the first entry from today and read them in chronological order. If you haven't read yesterday's yet, then here is where to start.
posted @ 1:40 PM -

Scratch the surface

Don't let me put you off Warsaw. It's very much like how a fellow traveller in Dubrovnik describe the Slavic people - there's a nasty and hard exterior, but if you take the trouble to get past that it's always worth it. I had a refreshingly mundane day today, of doing laundry and buying myself a new camera, and though getting around is still quite a trial, getting lost in Warsaw is a very pleasant experience. Behind the over-busy main streets, there are lots of small parks and courtyards, and although there is little of old Warsaw preserved, the post-war building has mostly been well executed. All in all it's a nice leafy place to walk around in, just as long as you aren't in a hurry to get anywhere.

Tomorrow I'll go back to doing tourist things again, and tomorrow night I'll head for Vilnius. I would actually like to spend longer here, but I have to enter Russia on Sunday night from Riga, and the trains to Vilnius are only every other night, so if I dally here I'll have to cut out either Vilnius or Riga, which I already did last year, and I don't want them to be places I perpetually fail to see.

Must go now so I can get in to the hostel and sleep somewhere warm. This has been my life - how are you?
posted @ 1:38 PM -

You achieve a zen-like state, as if someone else is driving

As soon as I left Britain I became very calm, probably because my last few weeks before leaving had been so hectic. Far from dissipating, that calm has become more and more set in, and it's been very helpful considering that some people in Eastern Europe still have a lot to learn about customer service, but yesterday was the closest I came to losing it.

My journey to Warsaw actually managed to go wrong before I had even reached Krak�w station. Buying public transport tickets is even more difficult in Krak�w than Bratislava, to the point that Peter & I simply gave up trying after a while. Most of the time we just walked everywhere, because it's not a very big place and it's very pleasant to walk around in, but once I had re-attached my backpack I couldn't face the mile or so from where I was staying, so I decided to just risk it and ride free. A couple of inspectors did show up, looking like right shady characters (they don't have a uniform, just ID badges, and they wear battered leather jackets that make them look like dodgy antiques dealers). Unsurprisingly they wouldn't accept my sincere protestation that I had actually tried in vain to buy a ticket, but they were surprisingly nice about it. I'm sure in Britain conductors try to inconvenience fare dodgers as much as possible, by doing things like marching them off the bus/train at the next stop wherever it is, but here they asked where I was going, and waited till we reached the station so they could get off the tram with me without causing me too much trouble. The one taking the money then kept repeating the fine, sounding like he expected me to be horrified by it, when in fact it's not that bad (110 z�oty), and it didn't occur to me until later that he might have been hoping for a bribe. In the end he wrote out the ticket very resentfully (which is why I think he didn't expect the transaction to be conducted in the official way), and I was far more concerned about how close I was to missing my train than the fine itself, because they really did take their time.

The actual train ride was fine, but then arrival was a complete nightmare. Warsaw In Your Pocket describes Warszawa Centralna station as a disgrace, and they ain't lying. For a start there are no signs with the station name at all, and Warsaw has several stations, so I just had to assume I was in the right place based on the fact that I had been warned about its awfulness. Then the platform is really dingy (as were many parts of the station, and bear in mind that I arrived in the early afternoon on a sunny day), and there are no signs to anything at all. It was obvious that I had to take an escalator up, so I just picked one, and ended up in some sort of concourse, but not the main one. In the end the only way I could find the main ticket hall was to leave the station altogether, and follow street-level signs for the station, to get back to the main entrance.

The main hall is on 3 levels, so I went to a ticket clerk on the lowest level first. She didn't speak any English, and my knowledge of Polish can be tactfully described as minimal (though it's a nice language, and I am starting to make sense of signs etc.), so I got out a pen and paper and managed to convey that I wanted a sleeper reservation for a train to Vilnius. She pointed me upstairs, and I think she was explaining that she couldn't do international bookings. Upstairs there were enormous queues (another thing I had been warned about in Eastern Europe, but which has mostly been an unfair stereotype), and I didn't see the word for international on any of the kiosks, but they all had exactly the same text, so I just picked a queue. After a while I reached the window, only to be pointed upstairs again. I wandered off, and then realised I could see an upstairs gallery, but no way to get there. A friendly copper (Warsaw seems to be crawling with police, but all they do is stand around looking bored and occasionally harrass tramps) pointed me through an unmarked door to a dingy staircase, which led up to another set of ticket booths, still not signed as international, but with a large map on the wall as a sort of subtle clue. The person here evidently could help, but once again spoke no English. As has happened a few times in Poland, an extremely helpful attitude together with some creative use of drawings made the transaction possible in spite of this. My particular worry here was to ensure that the train won't travel through Belarus, because I don't have a visa for there, and the most direct route would go through a corner of it. I'm reasonably sure it doesn't. There's still an outside chance I'll find myself rudely awakened by a Belarussian border guard throwing me off the train in the middle of the night though....

All I had left to do after this was buy a 3 day pass for the public transport (once again no sign of where to do so, but the guidebook pointed me to the right newsagent - ironically I've used buses and trams lots today and not been checked at all), and get the tourist information to book a hostel. Should be simple enough, but all that tourist information could offer was a place called the School Youth Hostel with an absolutely rigid 11pm curfew. When I said I wasn't happy with that curfew (actually I think curfews in general are a terrible idea, but my main objection was that it was so early) the assistant gave me a lecture about how you have to be considerate to the other guests. I felt like pointing out that my hope was to meet other guests and go out for the evening with them, but I just walked away because it clearly wasn't worth the effort. I also felt like asking her who she thought she was lecturing me like that when she was obviously fresh out of school and I had been living with people in a perfectly civilised manner for a few years now, but again it clearly wasn't worth doing.

I decided instead to go off in search of some of the less restrictive hostels listed in my guide. I started at what the guide calls the king of Warsaw hostels, which of course was booked out. The receptionist told me this with an expression that spoke volumes: what were you thinking turning up here without a reservation. Anyone would think it's the off-season or something.

Anyway, to cut a long story short I did an awful lot of traipsing round Warsaw, which is a bloody nightmare to get around if you don't know the area. There are whole sections of road where it's impossible to cross, and I've now got into the habit of using buses to get across main roads because it really is that bad, and the public transport by contrast is a model of efficiency. There are also a lot of small roads not marked on any of the 3 maps I now possess, public transport maps seem simply not to exist, and none of my maps indicate numbers on streets, in spite of the fact that many streets are 2 or 3 miles long. Then there's the metro. There's only one line, but the stations are just as confusing as the main train one. They seem to be of the two unconnected platforms model, except that the only way to choose a platform is by choosing the right entrance at street level, and the entrances are signposted by the names of the end-of-line stations. All very well, except that there's no map until you reach the platform, and the line is still being built, so the end of one of the lines is a station that doesn't even exist yet. Kafka would be proud.

Total time from getting off the inter-city train to finally getting on to a metro train away from the main station area: 1½ hours. And that was before I went to the first hostel. And where do you think I ended up staying? The School Youth Hostel of course. It's clean, comfortable, cheap, in a nice area, and truly awful. The staff talk to everyone like schoolchildren, as far as I can tell they are totally rigid about the curfew (and there's a tower from which you can see the Warsaw skyline, which doesn't open till 11pm, so I have a choice for tonight between missing that or risking spending the whole night locked out), and during the day it's locked from 10am to 4pm, so I had to carry my bloody laundry around all day and look like a tramp.
posted @ 1:17 PM -

Ghosts

The other part of Krak�w's sad undertone is more subtle. The last thing I did before heading for Warsaw was to wander around Kasimierz, which used to be the Jewish Quarter. If you were to walk around Golders Green there would be a sort of vibrancy to it which is pleasing, even though it's not my favourite of places by any means. There's also obvious infrastructure - Kosher butchers, bagel bakeries, and some of the best take-aways for Middle-Eastern food in London. Kazimierz has two Jewish restaurants, and one working synagogue, and that's it. Plus I'm not convinced that both of the restaurants are actually run by Jews (one of them seemed to use a menorah as its symbol, only it had too many branches), and one of them had a klezmer band, only they had had to import the musicians from Galicia (no, not the most obvious of places, but that's what their sign proclaimed). 70 years ago the streets would have been full of life on a Sunday morning, and the Jewish community would have been impossible not to see everywhere around. Now there are just these things, a few other synagogues that have been preserved as museums (a general observation about Poland is that at least some of the people here seem very eager to make sure that such things are preserved and remembered), and the ghosts of Hebrew inscriptions or stars of David on one or two doorways here and there.

If I could have told myself that the people just moved away, or assimilated into the Polish community, then it would have been OK. What was so upsetting was the knowledge that the people who had made this area home had been systematically wiped out.

Perhaps it's because Auschwitz is so intensely horrible that it's numbing, but somehow I found this more touching.
posted @ 12:30 PM -

Never forget

For all its loveliness, Krak�w also has a deeply sad undertone to it. It was the site of a flourishing Jewish community once, and then the Nazis invaded, and set up one of the largest concentration camps nearby.

We went to Auschwitz. I won't write much about it, because I can't avoid lapsing into cliches, and many more articulate people have expressed the same thoughts as I have in a better way. I do feel the need to say some things though. The first is that everyone should see a concentration camp. It's actually part of the curriculum in Germany that every schoolkid has to visit one at some point in their education, and I think that should be extended beyond Germany. Until after the event no-one believed that such utter debasement of humanity was possible, and now that we know it can happen it is really important that we never forget.

As we were leaving Peter turned to me, tears in his eyes, and something to the effect of I don't know how you haven't broken down. I'm not even a Jew and I'm cracking. The truth is I don't know how I didn't break down either, but I was certainly close, and there were parts that I skipped because after a while I was just desperate to get out of that place. I think in the end I felt more angry than upset, and in a way anger is easier to contain. I disagree very strongly with those who would still bear a grudge against modern Germans for what their grandparents did (and such people do exist - I remember someone asking me why I was learning that Nazi language when I chose German instead of Spanish at school), but walking through that place I could at least understand where they are coming from.

The thing that struck me most was the scale. Auschwitz is already large, but then there are aerial photographs of the area, on which Birkenau (the Vernichtungslage - we didn't visit there because I was too strongly gripped by the urge to run away by then) is evidently at least 10 times the size. Then one of the sections (the only one that was specifically about the Nazis' campaign against the Jews as opposed to the general suffering in the camp) finishes with a bare room, with a poignant small memorial in the middle, a lot of Jahrzeit candles, and a recording of the mourners' Kaddish. Normally there is a place in that prayer where the name of the deceased is inserted. This time there was a list of the camps' names instead. The list went on, and on, and on.

In the end Auschwitz just left me feeling horribly numb. There is still a part of me that doesn't want to believe that such a thing really happened. On the way back we met Jo & Jez, who seemed to be in a similar state. It was quite telling how at first Auschwitz was all we could talk about (and we were all really hungry, but none of us could face the prospect of eating for a while), but gradually conversation moved away. For the rest of the night (and even the following night when we met up again) it would still pop up every now and again, and 5 days later I'm still finding myself haunted by what I saw.
posted @ 12:06 PM -

Lies, damned lies, and other peoples' impressions about Poland

Of everywhere in the European part of my trip, Poland was probably the place I was looking forward to least. I had been told that the food was awful, there was nothing to see except Auschwitz, the cities were all ugly post-war constructions, and just generally given the impression that I'd want to leave pretty sharpish. Just goes to show that we should always make our own minds up about such things - all of those things were completely wrong.

But first things first. On the way from Bratislava to Krak�w I managed to lose my camera. As someone at the youth hostel put it, we go travelling, take security precautions and make it as hard as possible for us to be robbed of anything valuable, and then we mug ourselves. In my case I simply left the damn thing on a train in Katowice where we had to change. I'm not too bothered about the camera itself - it wasn't a great one and I should get most of the value back from my travel insurance - but it had a memory card with all my pictures to date. Anyone who's been travelling with me while I've had a camera will know that I am slightly pretentious about my photography and spend a long time playing around with it, so that's deeply frustrating to me.

In a strange way, this setback provided for a really pleasant introduction to Poland, because it let me quickly discover that the one positive thing I had been told about the place - that the people are generally really friendly and helpful - is in fact true. I didn't realise the camera was missing until we were on the next train, so at Krak�w station I went to the information desk to see if it could be tracked down. No-one spoke any English at all, but I ended up on the phone to an official's daughter, who interpreted for me. Then a message was relayed to the conductor of the train (I had a reservation card with the train number and all on it, so he was easy to track down), who by that time had already done his search through the train at the end of its journey, and hadn't found anything of note. No practical help in the end, but even so it made my first impression of Poland really lovely - could you imagine anyone at Brighton station doing that for a gormless tourist?

Krak�w continued to feel that way. It's a very pretty town (even in the unremittingly grey weather that persisted until the day after Peter left), and has a general nice buzz about it (probably due in considerable measure to the fact that it has a big student population, who were all arriving for the new term while we were there), but the thing that really made me enjoy my stay there was how wonderfully nice almost every person we encountered was. Both the Poles (especially the waitress who served us dinner on our first evening there, who was quite chatty and one of the most beautiful women I have ever set eyes upon) and the fellow travellers (big shout out to Jo & Jez - I hope you read this sooner or later).
posted @ 11:18 AM -

Sunday, September 29

I've written a lot today, and I've been writing things in chronological order, while they display newest-first. It will probably make more sense if you jump down to the first of today's entries and then read them in order.
posted @ 12:42 PM -

I am not a number

It may be the first place I had negative things to say about, but on balance I did like Budapest. It's Bratislava that has the dubious honour of being the first place that I actually disliked. From the ugliness of the station, to the fact that it was the first place I felt I really had to be on my guard (nothing actually happened, but I did feel like there was some danger of mugging, which I haven't felt anywhere else we've been), to the unspeakably vile smell in the corner of the station where the cashpoint was, to the cold grey drizzle, the visit started pretty badly. Then there was the fact that it was completely impossible to buy tickets for public transport (there are machines everywhere, but they only take coins, and the smallest Koruna note is such a low denomination that very few purchases actually get coins in change, and people refuse to give you more, presumably because coins are in short supply and they need bus tickets too) while the consequences of not having a ticket are very starkly advertised (actually it's not that bad - a fine that translates to a mercifully small number of pounds), and the lack of any public transport maps, whether at the station (which isn't central), available from out hotel (which also wasn't central), in the guidebook (actually this is a general failing of the ubiquitous Lonely Planet Eastern Europe - the maps therein are frequently pants) or posted at bus stops. And I thought London buses were hard to work out!

Our hotel (strangely the only cheap place we found to book in advance was a relatively smart hotel, in which a triple room cost next to nothing, while the nearby hostels were charging London prices) obviously realised this difficulty, because there was a sign up in the station telling us how to get there, only the instructions involved counting 8 stops on the tram, which is surprisingly hard to do when being constantly jostled by other passengers and thrown around by the least smooth tram ride I've ever experienced. We eventually found the place - a concrete shoebox among other concrete shoeboxes - and at least the room itself was decent.

The reason we had booked a place in advance was so that we could meet Brian (with whom I shared a cubicle at work over the summer) there, and it was his arrival that saved out stay in Bratislava from being really awful. The best thing about the place is that really tasty food and decent beer are so cheap that we actually had difficulty getting rid of the small amount of cash we'd taken out when we arrived, and we ate very well and drank an lot of beer. I probably won't see Brian for ages now, because he's from LA and is heading back there soon, so it was particularly good seeing him for one last time.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Bratislava itself is also the most awful - the new suburb across the river from the old town. The old town itself is quite pretty, but it's tiny, and then it's a short walk up a small hill to the castle, which offers outstanding views of an endless grey skyline. I have seen miserable Stalinist apartment blocks before, but never anything as inhuman as this skyline. Every single building was exactly identical, on a perfectly regular grid, with almost no space between them, stretching from one side of the horizon to the other (it's mainly the green spaces between buildings that makes Zagreb nice, and it was the limited scale of the concrete block estates that stopped them from being really horrible in Budapest). I know it's presumptious to judge a place where I stayed for a very short time from its architecture, but the whole district just seemed to sum up so much of the negative Western propaganda stereotype of Communism. It dwarfs people, and just seems to suck the colour out of everything. It felt like the kind of place where a person would not be Ivan Denisovic, but Worker 12 of Unit 4, Block 22. Until now I had always said to myself that these Communist-built districts were unpleasant, but not that bad, but this place really was dispiriting.

It gets better from here on - I'm falling in love with Poland - but that part will have to wait till tomorrow for me to write it, because although this internet cafe is open late, and I would happily stay here for another few hours, my hostel has signs absolutely everywhere about how the doors are locked 11pm and will not under any circumstances be opened until 6am, so I will have to leave here by about 10:30, and I have emails to write.
posted @ 12:29 PM -

McBudapest

Before setting off on this trip I had heard two opposing viewpoints on Budapest: one was that I would love it because it's a really beautiful city, and the other was that I would hate it because they have embraced Americana and capitalism with such vigour that it's killed off any native culture. Both had a point.

I have a strong suspicion that Budapest, or at least the central (read wealthy - the one journey we made out of town on a bus revealed quite how sharp the line is between the rich & elegant centre and the poor and grey outskirts) part of the city, has a higher number of McDonald's per inhabitant than London, and an impressive array of boringly familiar brand names. It's also reminiscent of certain parts of London in that there seemed to be several times as many foreign tourists in the more popular streets than Hungarians (I do appreciate the hypocrisy of complaining about tourists when I am one, but I hope to high heaven that I'm less annoying than some of these ones). There are other not-very-nice things about the place too, such as the fact that bars close earlier than in Britain (and as far as I can tell there's no law forcing them to), and that it's the first place where we saw the stereotypical depressing Stalinist apartment blocks (Tito may have been guilty of many things, but he spared Yugoslavia from the worst aspects of Stalinism, and Zagreb is a very human city as a result, while the other places we stayed were too small to have such things). There are good things to be said about the place too though - bear this in mind while I finish moaning.

The absolute worst thing about our stay in Budapest would have to be the first arrival at Keleti station. It probably didn't help that our previous 3 stops had all been small places, and it certainly didn't help that we'd been travelling for almost 24 hours, but even so the crowd at the station was quite bewildering. In fact it's probably the only place where we saw a really large number of Hungarians, all rushing (the whole Budapest transport system seems to be geared to rush rush rush, and while its efficiency is great it is a bit off-putting), in a station that actually has quite narrow platforms. Then someone homed in on us to try and sell us accommodation, only it wasn't one of the sweet sobe ladies like in Croatia (who also get a bit much at times, but are basically likeable), but an agent of a youth hostel. The most expensive youth hostel in town. As expensive as a cheap hotel, and he tried to sell it like it was the only option, and like it was cheap, but luckily we had done our homework and we knew better. What freaked us out though was that as we wandered towards the exit he appeared, and repeatedly did this while directing us back within the station. He was ostensibly being helpful (showing us where the cashpoint was and the like), but there was something really disturbing about his manner (I suppose the best way to describe it was that as soon as he clapped eyes on us backpackers we could see the cartoon dollar signs in his pupils), so we decided we just had to get out of the station, sit down in a cafe and work out where to stay. Getting out of the station took a while just because of the pressure of the crowd streaming in, and then the area around was depressing. It took us a while to find a place that we felt comfortable walking into as obvious tourists, and at that point we really had quite a negative feeling about the city.

Of course, we were in the equivalent of King's Cross, and actually if you compare like with like it felt a whole lot safer, but more importantly as soon as we left there things started to improve. We were almost the cause of a pile-up in the Metro station, because the escalators run unreasonably fast, so one basically has to leave the escalator at a fast job rather than the walk that works in London, and when we failed to do so the escalators simply remorselessly spat more people out in our direction. Still, the Metro itself was a model of efficiency, in spite of looking ancient, finding the youth hostel we had picked was easy, and it was a really nice place (it has the unpromising name of Best Youth Hostel, but it was good), and in fact by far the most sociable place we've stayed in. Now that I'm travelling alone I hope I can find more places like that.

From this point on we started to enjoy ourselves again, and Budapest is certainly a beautiful city. More to see than we had time for (we only had 2 days there, because we had to keep going north so Peter could get back to Berlin for his flight this morning, and I could be close enough to Riga to get there by the end of this coming week), and a relatively good place to do on the cheap because so much of what is worth seeing are the buildings themselves. We did splash out a little though, on some delicious food and a performance of Mozart's Requiem in the old church in the castle, which was fantastic.

If I had to pick a highlight of the trip so far it wouldn't be Budapest, but it was certainly an entertaining place to spend a couple of days.

Oh, and one more thing - we met our first (and so far only) dumb Americans there. You don't tend to meet many travelling in Eastern Europe, and by contrast it is relatively easy to meet interesting Americans, but these two did confirm that the stereotype is not baseless. There's a labyrinth under Buda castle, which consists of nothing authentic at all, but is done with an engagingly whimsy sense of humour, and they just didn't get it. There are authentic copies of cave paintings, painted onto plaster which has been slapped over the stone of the castle walls, with the stone wall visible all around. These two actually had to ask me if they were real! Oh well. Sometimes I feel like certain people only exist to make me feel better about myself.
posted @ 11:28 AM -

do re mi so far so good

Location: Warsaw
Visited since last post : Bratislava, Krakow
Mood : OK, but somewhat exasperated by the incomprehensibility of Warsaw (which I shall come back to later) and the autocratic regime in place at the only hostel that seemed to have beds.
Company : Peter until yesterday, assorted nice people we bumped into along the way in Budapest and Krakow, and Brian T in Bratislava. Now down to me, myself and I
Reading : The Economist. News from the rest of the world, and... nothing's happened!
Weather : well, let's just say that 10 days after sweating in shorts and sandals in Dubrovnik I have bought a nice heavy coat. Of course the day I got around to doing this the sun came out and it's nice and warm again now.

I have lots to write, and I probably won't finish today, but I'll be back tomorrow, and gradually catch up with emails to individuals as well. For now, the very short version is: Bratislava's not very nice, but meeting up with Brian and finding by far the cheapest bars we've yet seen meant that fun was had. Krakow is really really lovely, but walking around Auschwitz has to be the most intensely horrible experience I have ever voluntarily put myself through, and the ghosts of the Jewish quarter are also upsetting. I am finding Warsaw very difficult to deal with, not because it's unpleasant (once I finally found a hostel, had a shower and left my bag behind I started to quite like the place), but because navigation is damn near impossible as a pedestrian, even with the 3 different maps that I now possess, and public transport is even more opaque.

Peter went home yesterday, so I'm on my own now. I'm enjoying it so far, but it has only been 24 hours.... One damper - I lost my camera the other day, complete with all the photos (170-odd) I have taken on this trip so far. Bloody stupid thing to do.
posted @ 10:25 AM -

Sunday, September 22

The running men

Location: Budapest
Visited since last post : Hvar, Stari Grad, Dubrovnik and the inside of a few too many vehicles
Mood : impatient to get back out into town
Company : Peter and a motley crew of friendly people - we`re in the most sociable hostel we`ve stayed in so far
Reading : trying desperately to decipher inscriptions in a language completely unrelated to any I know
Weather : the classic British special - grey and rainy - but until today we`ve had sun, and Dalmatia was glorious

We are definitely trying to move too fast, but that is just about the only negative thing I have to say. It was all with good reason - from first arriving in Croatia, every person (Croatians or fellow travellers) we spoke to told us how wonderful Dubrovnik was, and how we must see it. We weren`t originally planning on going that far south, because to avoid Bosnia (which I now get the impression is a lot safer than we thought, but we were worried about it) we would end up retracing our steps for a long way, but I am very glad indeed that we listened to these people. So I will now say what so many people said to us:

Everyone must visit Dubrovnik. It`s wonderful

Actually everyone should sail in Dalmatia, preferably for a lot longer than we did. Just the ferry ride down to Dubrovnik was one of the highlights of the trip - a whole day in the sun travelling at a stately pace through some of the most beautiful coastal waters I`ve seen (doesn`t quite rival south-western Turkey, but comes close) - and I think one day I probably will have to charter a small boat and sail between Trieste and Dubrovnik.

The way back was not so good. We had a 24 hour journey, starting with a bus ride up to Split, then an overnight train to Zagreb, then a day-time train to Budapest. Not much fun, but ultimately worth it.

I have a lot more to say, but we only have one more day here, and there`s far more than a day`s worth of things I`d like to see.

Apologies in particular to people I should have been writing to in person and haven`t, but I will put this right soon. At the end of the month my pace of travelling will slow down, and I`ll be on my own, so I think on the day that Peter and I part ways I`ll probably spend several hours in the cheapest internet cafe I can find and write to lots of people, as well as retrospectively writing more here about what I actually thought about the places I`ve seen. Until then I don`t really want to dismiss interesting cultural differences with one-liners, so I`ll just finish off by repeating the most important message:

VISIT DUBROVNIK. It`s worth it, however far you have to come.
posted @ 1:57 AM -

Monday, September 16

Incidents and accidents

Location: Split
Visited since last post : German alps, Chiemsee, Salzburg, Zagreb
Mood : good
Company : Peter
Reading : no time to read
Weather : beautiful warm sunshine

Well... there is something inherently wrong about trying to plan an inter-rail trip as precisely as we did, so obviously the gods decided to teach us a lesson. Things started to go very well indeed - while I was in an internet cafe writing my last update Peter went back to the hostel and got talking to two of our room-mates - very nice Texans who we went out drinking with that evening. It transpired that they were about to hire a car and spend a week or two driving around Germany, and we ended up spending most of Saturday with them. We picked up the car - a tidy little BMW, because it would have been sacrilegious to get anything else in Munich - and drove off to Chiemsee. The castle was a little disappointing, because I was hoping for one of the fairy-tale ones up in the woods, but I was mixing up Chiemsee and Neuschwanstein. However, from there we went off on large loop around the German alps, which was wonderful. I have a strong association between mountains and skiing, so it's always a bit odd for me to see them in warm weather, but they are very beautiful places. A nice piece of luck, seeing as we couldn't have visited those places without a car.

The Texans dropped us back at Chiemsee, from where we should have been able to get to Vienna reasonably easily. We took the next train to Salzburg, as intended, but then things began to go wrong. In Salzburg we saw the train that should have taken us on to Vienna advertised as terminating in Linz. This made us a bit suspicious, so we asked at the ticket desk, and the guy explained that the train only goes as far as Linz on Saturdays. We were feeling very stupid about not having noticed this on the timetable, but in the 20 minutes or so we spent in the station hall about half a dozen people went to the counter, all having more or less the same conversation as we had had, so somehow this information either wasn't on the timetable or wasn't obvious enough.

Anyway, once again we found ourselves stuck in a station at night, with no desire to try hunting for accommodation at that hour in that place, and no way of getting to where we were supposedly going. This time we found a train to Zagreb that would leave at about 2am and get us there at a civilised hour of the morning, so we slung our luggage into a locker, and went out in search of ways to kill the intervening 6 hours.

Having told Peter a lot about how beautiful Salzburg was, I was very disappointed to find that the station is not in the picturesque old town part, and that I had no idea how to get there. The bit around the station is actually a bit grim and edgy, or at least it was edgy that night. We decided to walk around and see what we could find, and shortly found a line of police roadblocks in the course of being set up. From what we could work out, these seperated us from the old town, and there was nothing we could do about it because the police were only letting residents in. Most odd, though my suspicions should have been aroused that something was amiss when our passports were checked on the way to Salzburg. I was sure that Germany and Austria were both Schengen signatories, but there were indeed Grenzenpolizei on the train. I should have been made even more suspicious by the fact that they paid no attention at all to the Germans and Austrians on the train, but went straight for the two people with large rucksacks, asked us endless questions (where have you been?, where are you going?, what is the purpose of your trip?, even how do you know each other?), and were generally suspicious, when normally if passports are checked within the EU it's a very straightforward affair. All would become clear later though.

So, we avoided the police, who did seem quite interested in us, and made our way to a dingy local pub. It felt quite unnerving at first, even a bit reminiscent of the Star Wars cantina. We sat by a window, looking inwards, and two people were constantly staring past us. Except that as we were talking, one of them (the less scary looking one) starting subtly staring at us, trying to avoid eye contact, but obviously taking an intense interest. I asked the barmaid what why there were so many police around, and she explained that the World Economic Forum was about to start, and because the people of Davos were so upset by the carnage it brought last year they had moved it. She didn't seem filled with joy by the fact that Salzburg had decided to host it instead, and I can't say I blame her.

Suddenly everything became clear. I look like a typical anti-capitalist protester, and particularly on the train we were both carrying large packs, speaking English audibly, and quite frankly if I were that border policeman I would have been suspicious. Likewise, the old town was shut off because they always hold these things in the nicest part of town, and the regulars in this pub were suspicious of us and shiftly looking outside because we were on the edge of the cordoned-off area so there was lots of police activity outside and some of them must have lived nearby. What timing!

Eventually the people in the pub seemed to relax about our presence, perhaps taking a lead from the barmaid, who was very nice and friendly from the start. Eventually the chap who had been staring at us cracked, and decided he had to say something, in northern English-accented English. It turns out he's from Scunthorpe, but left the country about 2 decades ago and never came back. This started everyone around being friendly, and suddenly we were adopted. The remaining hours went by rather fast, with stilted conversations all around in a combination of English and German (the man from Scunthorpe being the only one who spoke both languages well), and we achieved something I have always wanted: having walked into a local pub [for local people] in a town where we know nobody, we had been bought drinks by regulars before the night was out.

Eventually we made it to the Zagreb train, having had an outstandingly entertaining night in a place we had never intended to visit, and would have stayed well clear of if we had known about the summit. We spent one day in Zagreb, and then took another night train to Split, which is where we are now. The 2 days we've spent in Croatia so far have been great, but it's time I stopped typing, because I've been here for a while....

Off to Hvar island tomorrow, and after that, well, who knows? We're supposed to be continuing on down to Dubrovnik.
posted @ 10:31 AM -

Friday, September 13

Location: Munich
Visited since last post :
Mood : good, but looking forward to a large beer after slightly too much walking
Company : Peter
Reading : nothing. My brain is also on holiday
Weather : uninterrupted blue skies

Just keeping this a short update because I have little credit left. I'm still disappointed not to have made it to Prague, but much less so now, seeing as our quickly improvised plan has turned out rather well, and we've been having fun here. The first place we went to in search of accommodation had beds free, so we are staying bang in the middle of town, in a place that's perfectly acceptable, though I do wish last night's room-mates had shown a little more consideration. I suppose they'd probably been to the Hofbr�uhaus, and they looked young enough that this was probably their first experience of such delights, but I'm still perplexed as to how they managed to be quite so noisy. I suppose we'll just have to retaliate in kind tonight. It felt somehow rude to get to Munich and not visit the Hofbr�uhaus, so that's where I'm off to shortly.

Tomorrow we'll head off to Vienna, but on the way we'll spend the afternoon at Chiemsee, which is supposed to be both a beautiful place and the site of one of mad Ludwig II's particularly over the top castles (as in the inspiration for Disneyland's Magic Kingdom, though I think that specifically was a different one). More importantly, tomorrow's when we start going to places where I haven't been before, so I'm quite excited about that.

Right. Beer by the litre awaits. I may switch my brain back on soon, but I haven't had a proper boozing session since finishing all the stuff I had on my mind back home, so it's about time.
posted @ 10:34 AM -

Wednesday, September 11

The Deutsche Bahn is fallible after all

Location : Munich
Visited since last post : Berlin, Dresden
Mood : tired
Company : Peter
Reading : maps and train timetables
Weather : mostly sunny, with grey patches

Every time something goes wrong with a British train (so fairly often really) someone invariably brings up Germany as an example of a place where such things would never happen (the only time you'll hear most Brits say anything positive about Germany). I'm still convinced that things run better here than in Britain, but the last few days have proved that it does happen here.

I met Peter in Berlin, all easily enough (and the city is every bit as cool as I remember, but strangely devoid of crowds), but then yesterday we planned to get to Prague via Dresden, and that was where things became complicated. Getting as far as Dresden (a very pleasant surprise. I wasn't really bothered about visiting there at all, but I'm glad I listened to Peter on this one - it's full of beautiful Baroque buildings nestling uncomfortably next to DDR-era cuboid apartment blocks, creating a clash of images I've seen nowhere else) was easy enough, though the train was late to make us start feeling at home. It also had its destination marked as Dresden, when our timetable said Vienna via Dresden & Prague. This should have been a warning to us....

At Dresden station, there was no information to suggest that anything was amiss, or that the train was terminating, but it did pull into a single-ended platform. We just assumed that this was one of those stations where the train reverses.

We knew we had a 1755 train to catch to get us to Prague, and we took a wrong turning on the way back to the station, so when we realised we ended up running. Just got back in time, picked up our bags from the left luggage, and then couldn�t find any indication that our train existed. Eventually managed to speak to someone, who just very moodily said that there were no trains to Prague, ever, and didn�t we know this? Perhaps if there had been a sign somewhere we might have realised....

A more helpful lady behind a ticket counter suggested that we could get a bus to Prague, so I went off exploring, but it transpired that there are two buses per week and we had missed one by a couple of hours. Eventually we gave up on the idea of getting to Prague at all, and started improvising. I just hope that the hostel we had booked for two nights there doesn�t bill my card for it, but I'm sure they will, and I'm sure I would if I ran a hostel and someone just didn't turn up.

So now we find ourselves in Munich, having used a night train (oh yeah, a replacement bus service from Dresden to Leipzig (which has an unfathomably huge station, in true Communist-edifice-to-state-power stylee, but that's all we saw of that city), to make us really feel at home, and then a sleeper from there) across the country to solve the problem of not having a bed for the night. We're in an EasyEverything (I didn't realise they had spread their tentacles beyond the UK, but they are cheap and reasonably good, so I'm grateful for it) trying to find beds for tonight. It's not looking promising as far as cheapness goes, but we'll find something. As long as I don't have to carry my main bag I have quite a lot of patience with traipsing around a place knocking on doors, and it is early.
posted @ 10:33 PM -

Monday, September 9

An impressive, but also rather daunting statistic: here is the number of applicants versus the number of places offered at MIT. Note that I am applying for Area II.
posted @ 2:22 AM -

Insomnia

Several of my friends suffer badly from insomnia. I see how it ruins days and sometimes even controls their lives, but I find it hard to sympathise, because I am one of those annoying people who can happily snore away on the most bone-shaking of trains. Except last night. I was up absurdly late finishing off PhD applications and the related update to my website (I can't expect a good response if I send off an application form saying you can see some of work online here without making that statement true, can I?), and finally at about 6am I decided to go to bed. I had convinced myself I still had numerous stressful things to deal with, and the combination of that perceived stress and excitement about the fact that this adventure that I've been planning in my head for years and in concrete terms for months actually starts this evening kept me awake. After an agonisingly slow hour I just gave up and had a shower. I do feel much clearer-headed now, which has allowed me to realise that I actually have barely anything left to do.

My bag is packed. All the intelligence-requiring parts of my PhD applications are done. All I have left to do is sorting out the things that I will want sent to me when I make it to NZ, taking careful note of what is in which package as regards application materials (I can't send them yet because I'm waiting for transcripts and references, so I'll have to leave notes with my mum), and order the ticket for my trip to America in January. None of this need take very long....

Oh well. I'm in a strange state now, as is to be expected when one has not slept at all. I knew I was going to experience strong mixed emotions when I left here, but this is liable to turn me into a right drama queen.
posted @ 2:15 AM -

Sunday, September 8

A related item: I've finally got around to putting my academic publications and CV online. There are two articles in the publication, both of which ought to be coming out as official publications soon, but until then it's my interest to make it easy for people to find and read them. The MSc dissertation is obviously the one of greater personal significance to me, but I suspect that the other is of far more general interest, and more accessible, not least because it's far shorter.
posted @ 8:18 PM -
I have a new front page. It's not all that exciting, but it brings some things up to date and is a little better geared to the sort of self-promotion I'm working on now as opposed to trying to sell web development services that I no longer offer.
posted @ 8:10 PM -
in about 33 hours I'll be outta here!
posted @ 1:43 AM -

Thursday, September 5

More partings today. Went for a fantastic dim sum banquet (if you ever happen to be looking for food in the Shaftesbury Avenue area I can strongly recommend the New World restaurant) in town with one person for lunch, and then dinner and drinks with two others in the evening.

The afternoon was only soured by an incredibly jobsworth traffic warden. My friend was a couple of minutes late driving his car out of the parking space, and this *!?! warden insisted on hassling us as we were trying to say goodbye in a manner appropriate to the fact that it could conceivably be years till we meet again. She would accept absolutely no argument, insisting that he had overstayed by minutes and that other people needed that space. Eventually she turned her back, saying that if he was still there when she came back he'd get a ticket. It took about 2 minutes for her to come back, and at that point he was reading a map working out how to get to where he was going next. Needless to say she just continued as before, until eventually he gave up arguing and drove off. I normally defend traffic wardens, because as a cyclist I feel they are my ally, but this did really irritate me. I tried arguing with her afterwards, but she just went on along the same lines and suggested that we should have driven off together. When I pointed out that all this achieves is to add to the already bad pollution and traffic problems of central London she had nothing to say in response. Anyway, her number was noted, and I hope I have time to write a letter about her to her employer before I go. I don't think it will achieve anything, but such things do make me feel a little better after I've had to deal with an arsehole like that....

Still, my mood was soon put right again by an exceptionally cheerful and friendly cashier in the bank where I went to purchase travellers' cheques, and then in the short time I had left in the afternoon I managed to find all the remaining things I had to buy, and met up with my friends for dinner. After dinner they introduced me to a place I wish I had known about before - a thespy bar underneath the Phoenix Theatre, which in theory one ought to be a member to drink in after 8pm, but in practice we didn't get asked for ID or anything, and the really important thing is that it stays open well after the usual closing time, without either charging admission or being an unpleasant place. All good, but it's a bit too late for me take much advantage of this discovery.
posted @ 6:15 PM -
Something I forgot to mention yesterday: if you want to read the dissertation that consumed much of my summer, it's online now:

Automatic layout of variable-content print data

Not the most thrilling or easy of beach-side reads, but for once I've produced a piece of work that I'm actually reasonably pleased with.
posted @ 2:22 AM -

Wednesday, September 4

many partings

I've had an eventful enough few days that I ought to have posted here more than 0 times, but that's kind of been the problem.

Friday night we (the 5 students who finished that day and our supervisors) had a leaving dinner & drinks, and I had a nice long (2 hours) walk through Bristol including the Clifton Suspension Bridge as a kind of farewell to the place. I don't expect to miss Bristol in the same way as I definitely will miss Brighton - after all I only lived there for a few months - but I do have some regrets about all the things I wanted to do in the area that I never found time for, and I will miss a number of people from round there.

On Sunday I moved out, or rather my parents and my brother very nicely took all my stuff to London, while I got a lift to Brighton. Monday morning handed in the dissertation, which was a relief, because until it was actually handed in I couldn't completely relax about it, and Monday evening had a leaving party in a pub. Things started to get kind of emotional, and then on Tuesday morning I left Brighton for good. I remember being a bit emotional about it last time, but this is for a much longer time, and it's kind of become clearer to me since that me ever living in Brighton again is unlikely. Even after 4 months away it feels like home, and I do wonder where will next and when that will be.

I spent most of Tuesday in voluntary isolation and quite a bad mood, as I had a GRE to prepare for. Took that today (Wednesday), and did quite well, which brings me a step closer to the relief and relaxation that everyone assumes must have followed handing in. Now all I have left are a few final arrangements before I go away, and some PhD application forms....

This evening I had another leaving party, this time in London, but it was kind of easier because almost everyone I know in London has been my friend for so many years, with so many gaps in between seeing each other that have never turned out to matter in the long term that I know we'll meet again. I also won't miss London as much as a place, because it's a long time since it's felt like home, and in a way big cities can't as much as smaller towns, because there are so many places in London that never had any significance to me. The thing about Brighton is that every street seems to resonate with something when I walk through it.

Anyway, that's been my week, how was yours?
posted @ 5:12 PM -

Sunday, September 1

The weekend has been busy, busy doing fun things like drinking lots and walking around Bristol for one last time, and not-so-fun things like having my last round of injections, which are still good because they remind me of what I have to look forward to.

I'm going to disappear for a few days now, because my computer's going to London and I'm going to Brighton first.
posted @ 12:21 AM -
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