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The links below lead to text from my first big trip across Europe (6 months in '94), and pictures from my second trip around Europe (six months in '98).

For the first trip, I headed from Turkey to Ireland, on trains, buses, and boats.

 
This page picks up in Greece, where I had just arrived from Turkey. I was traveling with Mick, an Irish guy I had met along the way.

(To see a map and information about Europe, click here. This will open a new browser. You can also click here to see the site map.)

You can jump to:

Pictures 1 or Pictures 2

Greece Bulgaria Romania
Santorini Entering June 1
Moving homes Sophia Civil Servants Must Die
Dave and Adele Varna  
Mark    
The escape    
Fired    
General    
Phone    
Last Days in Greece    

 

Greece

Samos

Samos is a good introduction to the Greek islands. It's very hilly, as Greek islands should be, and the houses are all painted white for the tourist season. People tear up and down the hills in their little scooters, and check out the views from the highest spots. The main town nestles in between hills down at the bay, and walking around near the water is a pleasure.

We really didn't plan to stay long, although I held some hope for a job there. The man who sold us our ferry tickets in Kusadasi (Turkey) had written a note of introduction for me to a guy in Samos who might give me work. Unfortunately, while Samos would apparently be hopping in a month or two, there was nothing for me in early April. So we bought our onward ferry tickets, and figured out a new plan.

My plan, simplicity itself, seemed complicated next to Mick's. I was going to take the ferry to the last stop, an island called Santorini, which supposedly crawled with tourists and therefore needed travelers to work during the season. I would find a job, and stay there until June or so, when I'd head over to Holland to see my relatives who lived there.

Mick planned to get off at Ios, an island just north of Santorini, and drink. That was it. Ios is legendary for having nothing to offer but a mind-numbing amount of alcohol, parties, clubs, and more alcohol. I read aloud the guidebook's description of a morning in Ios; people sleeping all over the place, dried urine and vomit on the sidewalks, and everything closed until it all began again that night. Mick's response-"Perfect."

I enjoyed riding the ferries all around the islands. The cheapest tickets don't guarantee anything but being allowed onboard, so you have to stake out a place to sleep in a chair, or on the floor. If there are a few of you traveling, some can guard your gear while the others sleep. It doesn't sound great, but I always met people on those ferries, and never had anything stolen, even when I sailed alone.

Mick got off the boat to head to his drunkard's dream, and then, once again, I was alone. Happy with Greece, and with my prospects for a job in Santorini, I spent the rest of the trip playing backgammon with some new pals, and generally expecting the best.

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Santorini

After the usual tout sorting out process, I wound up on Perissa Beach in Santorini. The main town on this breathtakingly beautiful island is called Thira, but I lived on the opposite side. Thira had most of the tourists, restaurants, and views, but Perissa beach had cheaper lodging, and several bars, and "black beaches" for relaxing. I settled in at a place called Roberto's for five bucks a night.

Santorini is a volcanic island, which accounts for the supposedly black beaches on my side of the place. They weren't black, but they were ash-colored, and man, did they get hot. You know how walking bare-foot on the white side-walk is cooler than the black tarmac? Now, remember the last time you went to beach, how the sand got so hot, you practically burned your little feet just getting to a place to put your towel? Now, imagine that same scene, but with black (ok, ash-colored) sand instead of your white or yellow variety. Hot.

Behind my place loomed some dark cliffs which always seemed to hang over the little village. Set right in the middle of these cliffs like a little white speck, was a church, which could not be reached except by hiking up the trail cut into the rock. My first day there, I decided to visit that church. I had no idea what lay on top of the cliffs, but I figured I'd try to find that out too. What the hell.

On Thira's side, there is no beach, but the views are spectacular. Thira sits high up on cliffs overlooking the blue water below. The buildings are all painted white, of course, and the effect against the black cliffs and the water below is magical. I don't care how touristy it is, the place deserves more tourists. The shops are all silly, and expensive. The restaurants are rip-offs. But the views make it all worthwhile. In fact, they make the long flight next to guy with the flu worthwhile. Or the long ferry ride with no place to sleep. I would buy 20 postcards, and spend a few hours writing while sitting on a bench, or on top of a stone wall. People sat near me to draw the scenery, or just sit and look at it all. As in Antalya, I felt blessed to be there. I was happy.

First thing I did was try to get a job. I went into Thira on my first day on the island, and talked to a guy about work on a new hostel/campground opening up. He said he needed someone for the next few weeks, and would probably hire me on for the whole season. I was pumped! Live near the beach where the bars are, work in town where the restaurants are, and not worry about money. Fantastic!

The next day I began. There were several wooden structures on the grounds which had to be painted bright white before the summer rolled in. And things had to be built, and moved, and cleaned. It was physical work, but I didn't mind it. When I got tired, I'd just take a little peek over the nearest rise, and see the sparkling Aegean. The healing effect of that water on my psyche can not be overstated.

I went home after work the first day, and once again counted myself lucky for being in such a sweet position. I liked working outside, I liked a couple of the people I worked with, my bed was a 15 minute scooter ride through vineyards and rocky hills overlooking the islands and tiny boats below. If I had some friends to go home to, then my life would have been perfect.

Unfortunately, though Roberto's was very nice, very clean, and very cheap, it was also empty. I had my own room, a balcony, and bathroom, but found myself bored. Or at least lonely. Well, after a week or so of work, I planned to have several friends to hang out with.

The next day the boss singled two of us out, and asked us to come help him with some other work. This turned out to be such stuff as lifting boulders to be transported to piles on the other side of the compound, or digging large holes in the ground in the middle of the campground. We had no idea what we were supposed to be accomplishing or why, but the boss had become an evil-tempered man who would not answer questions without yelling.

He'd send someone over to ask why we were putting these rocks there. And we'd say, “well, he told us to.” So he'd come barging over and start screaming at us about how he never told us to put eight rocks over there, he only wanted five! Now go get the other three and bring them back! Do it!

We were truly puzzled, this guy and I. What were we doing wrong? It was like that the whole day. He'd yell at us, and then say, “hey, do you want to quit, or what?!?” And we'd stand there and say, “no...we want to work.” We had both just started the day before, so we didn't know if this qualified as normal behavior, but we had been separated from everyone else, so we couldn't just ask.

It all became clear. When the day ended, we were both told to stick around for a minute, and while he waited outside, I was asked to step into the office.

I was fired. They had hired too many people, and just couldn't keep the last couple that they had brought on. They'd pay me for the two days, but that was all they had. And as he spoke, the whole thing settled in my brain· that asshole had been trying to get us to quit! Too cowardly to do the job upfront, he figured he'd work us too hard, and we would cry and quit to run home to Mommy. Only we didn't, I'm glad to say, and made him do his own dirty work.

I walked out, and saw the other guy waiting to go in. “We're fired,” I said, “those pricks promised us work all season, and now we're fired.” But he didn't believe me. He honestly thought that maybe I misunderstood what had happened, and that everything would be alright in the end. I got on my little scooter and drove home, too shocked to note the difference in attitude one day can make. From practically singing the whole way home yesterday, to wanting to drive the damn scooter right onto a ferry and get off the island today. And no one to bitch to.

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I stayed at Roberto's a few days, but eventually felt I'd better move somewhere more interesting if I wanted to have any fun. Amazingly, the run-down hostel in Perissa was also five bucks a night, but you had to share one big room packed full with 30 people!!

I couldn't believe it. Could I really throw away my luxurious little place to share an ugly, smelly, dark room with 30 people? And yet, I knew no one in town. How could I hope to find decent work without a network of travelers to help me out? How could I enjoy myself on a beach all alone? I bit the bullet and made the move. It turned out to be a great decision, but the first night was horrible.

It's dark, and most people have already gone to bed. Therefore we hear the snoring, rolling around, and mumbled speech of people sleeping in a strange bed. It isn't until much later that the wild boys and girls come home to vomit in a corner, or masturbate in the bunk above you. Maybe they decide to continue the conversation they were having at the club, and you can hear the final word on who's the best Cricketer in England, or whether Greek men are better-looking than Italian men. Some smoke, and so, of course, some cough. Eventually it's 5:30 a.m., and the rustling of the departing guests begins.

Rustling is actually a widespread phenomenon all throughout the back-packing world. For some reason, a huge amount of people pack all their possessions into 46 plastic grocery bags. Then they shove each grocery bag into their backpack, without the slightest thought as to what will have to come out, or in what order. They always have 6:30 a.m. trains or ferries or busses to catch, and they have never prepared anything the night before. The worst offenders will turn on the lights AND rustle. So I don't want you to think that you have you have to stay in a room with 30 people to enjoy the pleasure of an hour and a half of Crack-of-Dawn rustling. No indeed, you can find it almost anywhere you have to share a room with strangers.

Morning came eventually, as it always seems to, and I began to believe that my move had paid off. Within a few minutes, there were four of us sitting around talking, and I was glad I came. At first I found myself jumping into a conversation between an English couple. They were trying to figure out how far they could walk along the beach before it turned to rock. As it happened, that was one of the very activities that I had already enjoyed during my time of knowing no one and having nothing to do. So I broke in, and we began talking, and joking around.

They told me their names were Dave and Adele, and they'd been traveling around for awhile, just like I had. In fact, they started in Israel as well, working on a Moshav, which is very similar to a kibbutz, except that the work is harder, and the money better. We hit it off immediately.

Somewhere along our conversation, an Aussie joined in, and by way of introducing himself, jumped up, stuck out his hand, and said, “mock snime.” I shook his hand, as anyone would, and tried to figure out what the hell "mock snime" was supposed to mean to me. As it happened, he didn't realize that I had no idea what he had said, and we all just kept talking. After a while, I finally figured it out.

You have to be Australian to be able to decipher half the crap they say. It's not just the old fashioned rhyming slang which started in London. I mean where 'apples and pears' really means 'stairs,' or dog and bone means phone. Or even septic tank which rhymes with, and stands for, Yank. It's not even the shortening of the rhyme, which makes it completely impossible to guess, like when a guy calls me 'seppo' which is short for septic tank, or he says 'Noah,' which is short for Noah's ark, which means shark. “Yeah, I was paddlin' in when I saw three noahs near the shore.” I mean, that's hard enough, but in the end it's pretty rare for people to talk like that unless they're just joking around. It's the stuff they say all the time that has no relation to anything in the rest of the English-speaking world that really screws you up. And half the time, they have no idea that it's not the most common word in every neighborhood. How could anyone not know what a chook is, or a billabong, or fairy floss, or pressies for Chrissy?

But before we get to all that, maybe I'd better stick to Greece. And actually, this time the guy was using everyday, common English. It was nothing more interesting than his accent that threw me off. Mock snime translates as “Mark's the name.”

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Dave stands in my mind as perhaps the laziest person I ever liked. His girlfriend, the aforementioned Adele, got jobs wherever they went, while he talked about getting a job. But you see, talking about getting a job often has very little to do with actually getting a job, so Adele did a lot of supporting Dave. Which felt a little funny, because he clearly came from money and private schools, while she clearly didn't.

So somewhere in my brain, I expected him to have a ton of money, and her to not. But it was always the other way around.

Mark, Adele, Dave and I moved out of that hostel the next day, and into a great room for four overlooking the street below. I loved that place, which had its own bathroom, kitchen, and balcony for sitting outside and talking to all the tourists below as they ambled down to the beach. The only problem was that it really was just one big room, and Adele used to have to ask Mark and me to leave them alone so they could have sex. How depressing is that? Neither one of us had anyone, AND we were made to leave our own place so that other people could get their fair share! Ah well, we were happy that they were happy.

Oh, and there was Karl. Karl somehow attached himself to Dave and Adele before Mark and I met them. He'd had the extraordinary misfortune of having almost every penny to his name stolen out of his backpack while he slept one night in that horrible hostel. Because he was sort of friends with Dave and Adele, and because he was absolutely flat broke, he ended up sleeping on the floor of our place. Karl looked for a job every day of his three weeks on the island, and never found one he liked. He actually had people coming to him to ask him to work for them! Karl had made a few signs for some of the clubs around Perissa, and soon everyone wanted a cool sign. But he didn't like doing it, I guess, and most of the time he had no money. He usually ate french fries for lunch, and he definitely never gave any of us a dime for rent. He was ok though, I never had a problem with old Karl.

See a picture of Mark, Karl, Dave, and Adele

Adele and I had our occasional battles, though. We differed on how we looked at a lot of things, but then, we had extremely different backgrounds. She told me some horrible things about her life before she met Dave and went traveling. I don't know if everything she told me was true, but even if it isn't true, anyone who'd make up stuff like that is different than I am. For one thing, she said that she used to turn tricks with her father's friends in order to bring in extra money. I guess you have to give the poor girl some extra slack when it comes down to little disagreements.

But for Mark, Dave, and me, it was always just relaxed, good-times. The last I heard about Dave, he had just joined the Army, which shocks me even now. I guess it was easier than looking for a job.

He and I actually looked for a job together, but somehow I found one and he didn't. Actually, the way we looked was kind of unorthodox, and I guess that I could be counted as lucky for getting one myself. I know Dave said I was lucky. What we did was, he sat on the stairs of a closed shop across from a place renting scooters to tourists, and I sat next to him. We could usually get a kid to go to a store and get us a couple of beers, and we'd talk and hang around, and eventually go home and grin at Adele, and explain that we didn't find anything. And she'd laugh.

So, after a couple of days of job-hunting in this way, I eventually told the kid to bring a beer over to the scooter-renter, and when the guy looked up with a smile, I gave him a wave. I was hired.

Suddenly I had a job. Every day, I'd go out to the lot, and try to get tourists to rent the bikes. If they did want one, I had to talk to them, since Spiro (my boss) spoke almost no English at all. Most of the tourists DID speak English, and if not, I could always try my French. We got along very well, Spiro and I. I'd show up, and watch him mix two tiny cups of ridiculously thick coffee. We'd drink a swallow, and then throw away the goop that stuck itself to the bottom half of the cup.

I once went caving in North Georgia. We all squeezed down into the pitch black beneath the earth, and slid and oozed our way along the paths and alleys down there. At one point we reached a stretch of terrain that grabbed our boots and created unbelievable sucking sounds with every step we wrenched out of it. The word mud doesn't do that stuff justice. Whatever it was, it was a lot more than mud. And if, in some arcane dictionary somewhere, it has a name, it's almost definitely a derivative of the word for what's left in Greek coffee cups after the first swallow.

After the coffee, we'd sit back and watch the day. There were tourists, and I'd yell out to them. “Red Hot Bikes, right off the griddle!” “ICE cold scooters, come 'n get 'em!” Stuff like that. Spiro had no idea what I was saying, but he noticed the smiles I got as people enjoyed their walks. Things were going swimmingly. Then came Mark. Remember, Mock Snime?

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By the time I met him, Mark had already done a bunch of traveling. I think he started in Europe, taking in the winter Olympics in Lillehammer, and then south and east from there. He was out to have a good time, and by all accounts was doing a bang-up job of it. Very relaxed, easy to please, and generally a nice guy, Mark found friends everywhere he went.

And he had a job, too. Mark became what is known in Greece as a Kamaki man. I believe 'kamaki' translates roughly as 'Playboy' in English, but his job had nothing to do with mansions or millionaires. On the island thrived many bars and late night clubs, all of whom depended on tourists for their daily bread. So the establishments' operators (otherwise known as 'thugs') did their best to hire travelers to drum up business every night.

Sometimes these travelers were supposed to walk the beaches, handing out flyers. Sometimes they'd just make conversation with anyone they could about the fantastic prices at their place. These people were usually girls, hired for their looks and their personalities, in that order. At night, they were to stay in the club, drinking, dancing, and looking like they were having the times of their lives. Yes, they were paid for this.

But guys were hired too. The guys would stand outside the club during the evening. They'd hail passersby, and try to rope them in. These are Kamaki men. The owners would always be hiring new kamaki men, because they always thought that the next guy would do a better job of getting people in the door. Like my employer in Thira, they'd tell you that you've got work for the season, then a few days later mention that if you didn't get fifty people in the door (or whatever) then you'd only be paid half of what you'd been promised. What could you do? Everyone worked illegally, so they had no recourse except to quit. It wasn't nice.

Then again, to be fair, it wasn't that nice on the other side either. Travelers would come and promise to stay for the whole season, and then take off one night for some supposed greener pasture. There was no trust on either side, and both sides were right not to trust the other.

So I never wanted to be a kamaki man, but Mark actually got himself a pretty secure position in a place called Taboo. Taboo considered itself above the Kamaki Scene, so although they had Kamaki men just like everyone else, they called them 'Doormen.' Mark was a doorman. Taboo wasn't actually above anything, and it was the only place in Perissa where I ever saw a real fight. The young Greek men running the place (thugs, remember) were brawling in the street with some Australian and Canadian guys. I didn't really participate, except to try to get in between people. Those Greek guys definitely started it, and had no problem pushing girls around as well. Ugly.

One day Mark came strolling up to my little scooter lot, and (not surprisingly) asked to rent a scooter. Now, Spiro happily agreed to rent Mark a scooter, as long as he left his passport with us, just like everyone else did. The deal with the passports acted as insurance. No one would steal or damage a scooter if it meant they couldn't get out of the country. Or worse, if they had to deal with the mind-numbing bureaucratic process of getting a new passport. Unfortunately, Mark's passport lay next to the eternally growing pile of garbage by his bed in our room. True, our room was only about forty paces down the road, but Mark stood as my friend and roommate, and Spiro gave him a bike in exchange for his driver's license. Big mistake.

Not two days later, my Australian roommate approached me with a grim look on his face. “Mate, I wrecked that scooter.” Wasn't his fault, etc. etc., a car ran him off the road, never got a license number, (etc. etc. again). Now, look, this stuff happens, you know? People wreck these things, and it's not the end of the world. He just has to bring the bike back, and let Spiro have a look. Right?

But Mark figured Spiro would charge him an arm and a leg. He figured Spiro might be a crook, just waiting for poor innocent travelers to take a spill so he could gouge the living hell out of them. His plan: make a dash for it.

And there I stood, my friends, all alone with a decision to make. Do I stick by my friend, and help him get away, or tell my boss, who'd been nothing but good to me? Or just do nothing at all.

I didn't tell Spiro about the wreck, and just figured Mark would do whatever he would do. Unfortunately, Spiro found out about the bike on his own. He called me over, and spoke in English, “you friend, he fall down!” I acted innocent, and he went on, “I see bike, he fall down!” I continued to play my little game, and who should come strolling down the avenue at that very moment, but the hero of this story. Hey Mark, come here!

Well, Mark told Spiro that he'd bring the bike by later today, and talk about the money. Spiro said that's fine. But he wanted Mark's passport. Right now. Mark said he'd trot back to the place and get it.

Ten minutes later, Spiro asked me to head home and see what was taking my pal Mark so long to get his passport. And I did.

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When I walked in the place, Adele, Dave, and Mark were planning his escape. They figured he'd leave the island, and that'd be that. I was going to go tell Spiro that Mark had taken off, pack and all, stiffing us for his rent as well as not paying for broken scooters. Then, that night, under cover of darkness, he'd slink away from Santorini and his debt.

I walked back to Spiro, leaving them to pack all Mark's stuff away. Mark had to finish lunch before he could do anything else, and his lunch was absolutely revolting. His diet in general horrified me, but this meal took the prize in the 'How Could You Eat That?' category. And I have to carry the weight of being the guy who gave him the idea.

Earlier that week I had had concocted a big batch of Spaghetti sauce, and had passed on a little tip to Mark. I told him that sometimes I add a bit of yogurt to a meat sauce, which gives it a creamy stroganoff flavor. I used yogurt instead of sour cream for lots of stuff, and putting it in spaghetti sauce works very well.

But some people don't really make a decent spaghetti sauce. Some people have a terrible misunderstanding of what is meant by the words, 'spaghetti sauce,' or even 'pasta sauce.' Some people will boil water, add spaghetti, cook it properly, put it on a plate or in a bowl, and then put... ketchup on it. If you are one of these people, then you should know that I am not here to condemn you. I assume that, like Mark, if you had a good sauce already made, you wouldn't prefer to use ketchup. Ketchup is there for when you're hungry (very hungry?), and don't have the time, or energy, or know-how to make a real sauce.

But, what I'm hoping, is that if you were faced with a meal of spaghetti and ketchup, that you would not do what Mark did. I'm hoping that you would not pour a bowl full of ketchup, and then add yogurt to it, mix it up, and then put it in anything you cared at all about (certainly not your mouth).

When you do that, you find that you have a... sauce, that is very light red, with many, many little white spots dotting it. This... sauce tastes bad. And even Mark could not work himself around to enjoying it. He sat there, putting small forkfuls of spaghetti and... sauce into his mouth, but he was not smiling. It became a contest of wills. Him against the entire history of culinary advancement. By God, he would eat his meal.

And that's how I left him, struggling with lunch while Dave and Adele got ready for his imminent move to another island.

“Spiro, man, Mark left! He's gone! Took his pack and everything!”

And Spiro immediately got on a bike, told me to get on behind him, and we headed to my apartment! I began to sweat, and my poor little brain, atrophied from too many weeks hanging out by the beach, began to pulsate with the effort of forming a plan. A lie, I needed a really good lie.

As we pulled into our little courtyard, I looked up and made eye contact with Adele who happened to be out on the balcony. She looked appropriately alarmed, so at least I knew she understood the situation. We got off the bike, and Spiro waited for me to show him the entrance to our room. I tried a stalling tactic of taking him to the leasing office. “Maybe they know where he went,” I suggested hopefully. Once Spiro realized that he was not standing in my apartment, he made it more clear what he wanted, and I felt out of options.

We walked up the stairs to the place, and I opened the door. And there, in the middle of the room, Adele stood facing me without the slightest thing on above her waist. What a gal, using her body to come through for a friend. What could we do, but close the door with a thousand apologies, and wait for her to be decent again? And she finally let us in.

Spiro looked around suspiciously, and asked a few questions to Dave, who was, believe it or not, eating Mark's foul spaghetti. Or at least, pretending to. Dave actually thought that if the spaghetti sat there with no one eating it, Spiro would know that the whole thing was a lie. “He go?” Spiro asked. Yes, everyone agreed that Mark had gone. A few minutes of this, and Spiro and I left to head back to work. And he was pissed.

It turns out that Mark had actually jumped barefoot off of our balcony ledge, and took off running out of town. And I never saw him again.

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Well, ok, I actually saw him again about an hour later. Spiro sat closed-mouthed by the entrance to our lot, and I stood watching the tourists walk by, when Mark comes crawling up. “Hey man.” He decided that Spiro might have him arrested, or worse- beaten to all hell, by the time he could get off the island. So he came to talk turkey.

And Spiro charged him an absolutely fair price for the repairs. Mark paid it, and everyone was happy. He told Spiro that he'd gone to the bank when we thought he'd skipped out. How lame. Later that day Spiro had his English-speaking cousin over to translate, and he told me he didn't need me anymore. Not that many tourists right now, etc. I said, “Bullshit, it's because of Mark!” And neither of them denied it. So I was fired for the 2nd time in a few weeks, but this time was my own fault. I went home, and there were my buddies, hanging around the place. I smiled, said hiya, and walked into the bathroom. As I went in there, one of them asked, jokingly, “so, didja get fired?” And I said, “yup,” and closed the door.

A little while later, Dave and Adele headed out, and it was just Mark and me, and Karl on the floor. We moved to a smaller, much less hip place in the same compound, and life went on. I only worked once more, and only for a day or two, as a laborer at a hotel being built. Mark continued his fine work at Taboo, and Karl continued to be broke. I have spoken with Adele since then, but not in the last few years. Dave was never there when I called England, and no one ever called back. Maybe I'll never see them again. Put them on the ghost list.

I really enjoyed being there, even when I had no job. I knew all the foreigners working in Perissa, so everywhere I went, I had someone to talk to. And people were coming and going all the time, so it never got stale. I'd wake up sometime around noon, get dressed, and head to the beach. Sometimes it took hours to get there, because I'd always be stopping off to talk to someone along the way, or to sit down and play backgammon. Sometimes the whole day would drift by, and I'd realize I never got the beach at all. It was a completely idle, meaningless, fantastic life.

Mark and I had some fun conversations, and I got to hear all about his little exploits with the opposite sex. He'd be happy to tell you how smooth he is, even now, but I sometimes remind him of the girl he really wanted but couldn't get. I'd taught him a phrase or two in Latin (I only know a phrase or two), and he immediately memorized them, and went out to impress this girl. He'd already told everyone that he was a surfer, when in fact he'd never even been on a board; but this girl was smart, so he figured he'd have to look intelligent.

So they're drinking some wine, and he says, “in vino veritas. Yeah, do you speak any Latin?” And, of course, she does. Hilarity ensues.

Then there was Christy, a tall slim girl, who Mark obviously deeply respected. He said that most of her conversation revolved around small furry animals. Mark had apparently made a bet with the sensitive boys back home who said that he wouldn't be able to bring home a girl's underwear from his trip. It was worth fifty dollars to him to try, so while on the beach with Christy one time, in the middle of their passionate embrace, he threw her underwear into his bag.

They slept a little, and when she woke up and couldn't find them, he told her that some dogs had come and gotten them! Panty-stealing dogs. But she bought it, and they went their happy way.

One night, Mark, a guy named Matt, and I decided to head up the cliffs and see what the view was like at night. We found the trail easily enough by starlight, and although we made a few mistakes, we eventually made it to the church. Then we headed a little further to sit beneath a massive overhang which looked as if it threatened to crash down on us like a wave. Each of us had made this trip by daylight before, and Mark and I had each gone all the way to the top, but by night it was different.

There was no moon, but the sky, clear and bright, gave us all the light we needed. At three in the morning, it seemed like we were the only people on the island. Millions of stars above, the black sea below, and that crashing cliff, combined to make the view unforgettable. We were blown away.

We sat up there, quietly, for a long time. We felt almost somber, hushed. And when we finally climbed down, we climbed quietly.

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I loved Perissa, but it was the main town that had all the banks, and most of the pay phones. To get to town from Perissa, you had to either take a long bus ride, or rent a scooter. There were only two pay phones in Perissa, so even if you just wanted to call home, you'd be better off heading to town. Town also had the American Express office, which served as my mailing address while I lived there. If you own an American Express card, you can use many of their offices this way. Once I had decided for sure that I would go somewhere, I'd tell everyone at home to write to the AMEX office there. In Europe, for instance, I didn't know where I'd go, but I knew that at some point I'd be in Paris, so I told everyone to write to Paris. Then, a month or two later, I'd arrive at the place, and go to the office to get my mail, which usually consisted of a postcard from one person saying, “I'll write more later.”

The pay phones were the type with phone cards that you buy in advance, by the way, not the coin-only machines that we live with here in the backwards USA. These machines would take change OR a card.

Let's stop here for a second, and think about this whole phone card thing. See, in countries all over the world, pay phones accept little credit card sized phone cards. You buy them from sidewalk stands, or gas stations or whatever, and instead of dropping coins in the phone, you insert your card. Now, can you explain to me why Greece, Turkey, Israel, and countless other places on every inhabited continent besides ours have this technology and we don't? It's inexcusable. Here, we'd rather have people breaking into the phone to get the money out; or have to call collect, or not call at all because we don't have thirty-five cents in change. I don't get it.

Well, I feel better now. Whatever kind of phones, there was a period of about three glorious days when we all used the one in Perissa. One of my pals stopped me while walking home one night, and said that the phone was broken, there was no charge for any call, no matter where or how long! Wow! I beat it down to the phone, picked it up, and put my Greek telephone card in the slot. Usually, as you use time, the display counts off how many credits you have left. But here I stood, calling America, and nothing was counting down. I couldn't believe it. A magic phone.

I called everyone I knew, but of course, only a few people were home. I went back to the magic phone later in the evening, and then again and again, but even at three-thirty a.m. there was a line to use it. Word travels fast.

Eventually some old Greek lady tore out the wires behind the phone. Doing her civic duty, I suppose, but it meant we all started heading back to down to call home.

The days drifted by, as days do, and Karl and I sort of developed a routine. We'd head to our favorite little tourist hole in the wall, sit outside and hang around for hours. I would crush him game after game of backgammon, and we'd eat French Fries. We both got hooked on eating our fries with mayonnaise, which always got us into fights with the management. They'd constantly come and get the mayonnaise off of our table to put in the fridge, and we'd constantly go to the fridge and get it out to put on fries. I loved my life.

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Still, as the days wore on, I began to get an itch to leave Santorini. Content as I felt, I couldn't help wanting to be one of the people coming and going, and not one of the “locals.” The only decision I had to make came down to this:

Do I cut over to Italy and then north to the rest of Western Europe like everyone else, or do I head north to Bulgaria, and then west through Eastern Europe? I had never met anyone who had ever gone the Bulgaria route, and as I asked around to see who would go with me if I decided to, I got no takers. And I guess that's why I decided to do it. I wanted to have a different story to tell.

The plan took shape, and I randomly picked the date to sail to Athens. Mark decided to come along with me that far, and then fly to Katmandu for the next leg of his trip. My last day in Santorini began unlike any other day, and ended unlike any other night.

We were asleep when the shaking started. A small rocking, then more serious. At first, I figured someone was shaking my bed, maybe trying to wake me up or something. But when I opened my eyes, no one was there. I sat up in bed and just enjoyed feeling the motion of the first earthquake I'd ever experienced. It took a little while, but even Mark woke up, just as the movement stopped. I tried to get him a little excited. “Hey man, didja feel that shaking?” He sort of grunted a bit, and said, “yeah, prob'ly just a tremor.” Then rolled over and lay his head down again.

Just a tremor, maybe, but it shook enough to put cracks in our walls, and knock the toilet paper off the tank and into the tub. We weren't left homeless or anything, but I was impressed. Funny thing about the toilet paper, by the way. A couple of girls had been over a few nights before, and one of them went to the bathroom. As she walked in there, though, she called out that there was no paper. So I jumped up with a couple of rolls that we had bought, but hadn't put in the bathroom yet.

“Here ya go,” I offered as the door closed, “I've got some.” “No, that's ok, I don't need it.” I looked at Mark, mouthing, “she doesn't need it?” and he shrugged. We heard her in there, doing her thing, and then·a pause, the faucet, and out she came, fresh as a daisy. I never understood why she turned down the paper, or what she used instead. Ok, enough about that.

For now, the paper was in the toilet, the world had just quit shaking, and I was bounding out of bed to go tell everyone that we'd just had an earthquake. Or had the earth just quit quaking 'cause we'd had a worldshake? Right.

The day did not normalize. A party began to form around the idea of how much fun cross-dressing is. (Interestingly, this idea came up again in Seoul as well. Strange.) Everyone who worked in Perissa decided to have a big blast the next night in one of the apartments, and no one would be allowed in with sex-appropriate clothes. So people walked around exchanging dresses and suits (yes, there were actually people with suits) and make-up. And there I was, saying to myself, do I stay for the party, or do I leave? And I thought, I've gotta get out of here.

I can't explain my need to leave, except that maybe it has something to do with the power of having made a decision. Three days earlier, if I'd had the right job I would have stayed another month; but at some point I made a decision to go. That decision stuck, and grew, and took on a life of its own, morphing into fantasies of the boat that would take me away, and the first hostel I'd stay in once I got to Athens. The thrill of leaving overcame the perfection of staying so quickly that I couldn't even imagine lasting another day.

And I know that feeling. It's a feeling that I've come to be comfortable with. I can go a long time without knowing what to do, but once I make the DECISION to go, it's made, and I'm already on my way - even if I haven't moved an inch.

Mark is wired differently than I am. He wanted to stay, to have one last major blast before he left. I bought my ticket, and we arranged to meet in Athens at a hostel he'd stayed in before. I was disappointed, having made all these plans to have someone keep me occupied during the long ferry ride to Athens. We had decided that along the way we'd work out the music to a few songs I'd written, and probably attract hundreds of girls to our deck-side lounge chairs in the process. But now it looked more like a solo trip, bored and pathetic-looking, waiting for it to end. Still, it sounded better than sticking around in a place I had already decided to leave.

About this time, Mark went into town to get the ticket for his boat, and hit a snag. The banks were shut down for some obscure reason, leaving him without any money at all. They would apparently not be open before the day he wanted to leave, so Mark could look forward to being stuck a few hungry days on the island if he couldn't get some money together. Well, I loaned him my credit card. He swore he'd give it back in Athens.

That night several of us decided to make the climb up the cliff again. I was a veteran by now, of course, but of the ten people we gathered, Mark and I were the only ones who'd done it before. We had some guys along, and plenty of girls to make it interesting. The night was nothing like the first time we had climbed. This time the full moon shone, blocking out all but the most fiery of stars, and there were several clouds in the sky. The mood, far from mellow and deep, was one of exuberance, bubbling and playing over all of us, inspiring laughter and lyrics. We were having fun.

Then, sometime, someone noticed a watery rectangle that could be a swimming pool far below us inside the gate of a small hotel. No sooner had we seen it then the decision came to us. We were definitely going there! So we wound down the trail, laughing and slipping toward that blue puddle which still seemed hypothetical. IF there was a pool, it WOULD be fun to swim in it.

But there was a pool, and we shushed each other as we pushed each other over the fence and onto the cement. Three people were naked and in the water by the time the Greek man came out of the shed. He didn't say a word, just walked slowly toward us, his shotgun held easily open over his arm. And we moved. “Sorry man, we're leaving, we're going.” And everyone rushed into some clothes, carrying others, and clambered back over that fence, to the way too dark gravel road which led to the village. We trundled about a hundred yards down the road, and stopped to let people get back into their clothes and shoes and whatever else they wanted to get into. That's when the bastard opened fire.

Why? I mean, we had left! I would understand more if had come out blasting, but why shoot at us once we had left quietly and quickly? I actually know the answer, and I will share it with you now. It's because the guy is a dickhead. There, that's one less secret in the world.

Everyone scattered, but I guess we were way out of range, because although it stung (and broke the skin a little), it wasn't too painful. I strolled back to the road from where we had all bolted, and picked up some shoes which someone had left. BAM! He fired again, but I had covered my eyes, and the bites in my skin weren't enough to make me jump again. Fuck him. And we all walked again, and he fired one more time, making it twice that he had to actually reload and re-aim at a bunch of kids who were walking away from him. Please see the preceding paragraph for my thoughts on the subject.

By the time we'd made it to the village, we were hilarious. Laughing and falling all over each other, and singing an old Violent Femmes song- “Don't shoot shoot shoot that thing at me. You know you got my sympathy, but don't shoot shoot shoot that thing at me!” The only little scare after that came while we relived the whole thing at a favorite bar called Traveler's. A cop came in, obviously looking for someone or something. That shut us up. A few minutes later he was gone, and we were rowdy again. That was my last night in Santorini.

And I left.

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Athens

Once in Athens, I immediately began my machinations to get out and far away from there. To begin with, the heat amazed me. I'm from Atlanta, which is not a frigid place, and I'd spent six months of my life in the fields in the Negev desert, so I had felt the occasional heat wave, if you see what I'm saying. Athens shimmered in the heat. It dripped humidity. The acropolis sweated, while the tourists swooned. It's not that my room didn't have air conditioning, it didn't have air. It baked, and in every way reminded me of an oven except that everything was wet. My clothes, the walls, my body, the very city glistened through the smoggy haze that chokes it all. I would stay to meet Mark (get my credit card), and be on the next train, bus, or whatever I could get, to Bulgaria.

Mark never showed, of course, leaving me waiting at the hotel Lazoni, looking like an idiot for about three hours before a cab driver showed up and asked if I was Robert. Turns out I am, so he gives me a crumpled envelope in which I found a note, and my credit card. Mark had decided to head to Cairo instead of Katmandu, and the plane would leave in an hour, so he couldn't hang around to meet me. I still have trouble believing the incontrovertible fact that some unknown cabby gave me that envelope, and hadn't spent a dime of my money. Neither had Mark, by the way. The banks apparently opened ahead of schedule, and he had no trouble at all. But through my shock and disbelief shone the bottom line: time to go.

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Bulgaria

The bus trip from Athens to Sophia (the Bulgarian capitol) loomed ahead of me. Thirteen hours of cramped, smoky, broiling hot misery only to arrive in the middle of Eastern Europe without an inkling of an idea how to speak Bulgarian, or even read the alphabet! (You know, it's a lot easier to get around if the alphabet is the same as dear old home. One can buy a map, or compare the guidebook's addresses with street signs. Bulgaria's alphabet is very similar to Russia's, Cyrillic , and although most of the letters look like ours, that only makes things more confusing. For instance, if you wanted to spell a word that sounds like "“restaurant,” you could do it using letters that everyone back home would recognize. Here they are, in the correct order: PECTOPAHT. Any Bulgarian would read that as RES-TO-RANT. They wouldn't know what that means, since restaurant isn't a Bulgarian word, but they could pronounce it at least. It takes some getting used to.) But as I boarded the bus, I could barely contain myself from thanking the driver. It was clean. It was air-conditioned. It was smoke-free! Oh alleluia!! Everything seemed brighter, even Cyrillic.

Of course it took longer than thirteen hours to get to Sophia. First we had to get to the border, which came easily enough, then we had to get across the border, which took hours! We just sat there. The driver turned the ignition off, but left the lights on for us while he wandered off into the night. After several hours of waiting, the driver came back to our bus, found the battery dead, and had to drift forward to clutch-start it! A moment later, I rolled through my very first Eastern European landscape.

The scenery surprised me. I had expected dismal, vast acreage of concrete blocks and factories. What I got was green hills and little villages nestled in picturesque settings straight from a fairy tale. Once again I had let my prejudices affect my outlook. But I guess that's what prejudices do. Still, some things about the meadows and villages of Bulgaria strengthened my former view rather than diminished it. Real live peasants worked in the fields. Chubby women wearing shawls, and men behind plows pulled by donkeys. Meanwhile the radio on the bus played R.E.M. and I appreciated the feeling of anachronism. I snuggled into my seat, and tried to imagine what Sophia would be like. For once I had no clue at all what to expect; not even a false clue.

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Sophia

The guidebook suggested that I contact the government run Tourist Association to find a room, which I did. I waited in their office while they made a few phone calls, and then they all smiled at me and asked me to wait some more. Which I did.

Eventually an old lady came into the office, and everyone made it clear that I was to go with her. The plan was that I would pay her the equivalent of fifteen dollars a night (which is not cheap, considering I was paying 5 in Greece), and she would let me stay in her private apartment. I walked along beside her to her place, while she smiled and occasionally said a few encouraging things to me. At least, I assumed they were encouraging by the tone of voice she used. Apparently I had become dog-like in my ability to understand people by their tone of voice, and nothing else.

Her place looked and smelled clean, which I felt grateful about, and she showed me to my small, adequate room on the opposite side of the apartment from hers. She was very sweet, gesturing and smiling, smiling and gesturing. And she obviously knew that I needed some peace, because she left me alone before I had to ask her to.

Half an hour later I lay in bed, assessing the situation. I was paying too much, but it was quiet and clean. I was obviously never going to meet any backpackers here, but the shower was the best I'd had since leaving the U.S. ten months ago. Whoa, ten months. What a stud! I'd been traveling ten months, and here I was in Bulgaria (Bulgaria!) all alone, and in fine shape. Things had gone pretty well, I was thinking. Made friends along the way, had a lot of fun, and now relaxed in comfort in the heart of a country where no one I knew had ever been before. Very pat-on-the-backish.

And like so many other places I've been, I had to sit there and remind myself how cool it was to be there. I had to consciously focus on the fact that this was a great thing I was doing. Sophia's a very nice city. It has a smallish feel to it, and lots of restaurants and cafés, pizza joints and young people. But if I didn't sit there and say, “Rob, this is something special,” I would've enjoyed it like any other city. It would have gone into my mind as a nice place, rather than as BULGARIA.

My only concern was how to find new friends. I mean, how long would I really stay in a place where no one spoke English? How much time can I kill reading whatever borrowed or traded book I happened to have stashed in my pack? That's a huge problem with relying on youth hostels for your reading material. Half the time you end up with something a little less than...recent.

I had a nap, then went for pizza. I was all alone, the pizza was average, and it cost extra to get ketchup. Now, first of all, the pizza itself was very cheap, so I had no reason at all to complain about the price, or the quality. It was a big ol' twelve incher, and they'd piled about six toppings on it, for about two bucks. And second (of all?), I never have, and most likely never will, want ketchup on my pizza. Still, it interests me in a sociological sort of way that had I wanted it, they would have charged me extra for it.

The place was hopping, by the way. Friday night, and lots of young people, laughing and joking. Sophia must be a great place to hang around if you're a young Bulgarian. Unfortunately, young Americans may find it to be a little less fun. I came because no one ever came here, and upon arrival, the only thing I wished for was that some other people like me would come along. How could I enjoy the fact that I go where no one goes, if no one goes where I go who will help me enjoy it?

And I walked around town, and I went home to visit my Old Lady Landlord, who was surprised and indifferent about my early return. The next day I walked around some more, and found my way to the U.S. consulate. I had decided that it might not be a bad idea to register there, just in case something horrible happened to me. If my parents called looking for me, the government would have some idea about who I was, and where I was heading.

While there, I got into a conversation with a guy who worked at the consulate, and who had lived in Sophia for some time. We were talking about how Sophia is such a pretty place for a capital city. I mean, it's the biggest city in Bulgaria, but it's very clean, and mostly scenic. The guy told me that Sophia didn't have any factories. Apparently, the USSR kept Bulgaria importing things, and wouldn't really let them manufacture very many of their own goods. I wondered how long that would last, now that the country is on its own. Will they let their beautiful capital become a smog-covered disaster? I didn't know, and I still don't.

That guy told me about a seaside town on the Black Sea Coast called Varna. I had read about Varna in my guide book, and this guy recommended that I go have a look. I felt guilty about leaving Sophia so quickly, but then, I wasn't enjoying it. Hopefully there would be some travelers in Varna, which was a vacation-type place.

Well, first things first. I was just about out of money, and the AMEX office in Athens had assured me that I would be able to get more at their office in Sophia. I just had to find it, then I could write them a check, and get a little dough. So much for assurances. The office existed, but had permanently closed some time before. Damn! First thing I wanted to do was call the AMEX in Athens, and scream at the guy. This, I did not do. Instead, I just re-figured my budget, and decided that if the travel agents would take credit cards, I'd have enough money for a little trip to Varna before heading to Bucharest, where I absolutely HAD to get some money.

Once at the bus station (just a bunch of busses packed into a big parking lot, I had to figure out how to spell Varna in Bulgarian. That small task settled, I hopped on a bus, and settled in for the trip to the coast.

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Varna

I liked Varna. My first day walking around, I went to the Black Sea and dipped my feet in. The Black Sea. I don't know, the Black Sea just seems to have an air of Mystery around it. Maybe it's because of the name. I mean, the Black Forest has an air of mystery around it, too. Black places, maybe.

Walking aorund Varna was like walking around a lot of tourist places in the U.S. Most of the kids were wearing shirts with Metallica or the Chicago Bulls on them. The all had Nike shoes, and Levi's jeans. They were having fun, and looked healthy and happy. And the women were beautiful! Wow.

As I spoke to Greek men about heading to Bulgaria, they would sort of give me a wink about Bulgarian women, but I assumed they were joking. I had some idea of huge, hulking, hairy beasts from the wrestling team, showing off their bad teeth when they grimaced and ate sausages. Not so, I can tell you. Not in Varna, anyway. Slim, blonde, blue eyed beauties, laughing and playing along the streets. I was blown away.

Ahem, but back to the important stuff. Varna is obviously where wealthy and healthy Bulgarian and Russian tourists go. There were tons of cafés, nightclubs, at least one pool hall, and a very big, apparently free movie theater (I think it was free, and I certainly didn't pay anything to go inside, but I might have broken some rule that everyone knew but me. Maybe some sign posted in Bulgarian that asks for a donation or something. Anyway, the movie was pretty bad, so I left after a few minutes).

There were good restaurants in Varna, and variety as well. I ate squid in a Chinese restaurant near the center of town. Again, like Sophia, I thought how great it would be if there were only some other people around who spoke English, and were interested in speaking it with me.

In the meantime I had some business to take care of. Luckily, there WAS an AMEX office actually open in town. It wasn't open on Sunday, but I was there early Monday morning, and was able to get some money. Always a good thing to have.

With cash in my pocket, I was able to break out and do a few things. I headed to the Maritime museum in town. It was a quaint little museum, with all sorts of watery odds and ends. I loved the copper sign that proclaimed, in English, that the “Glorious Bulgarian Navy” defeated some ship or other in some war. It struck me as perfect Communist rhetoric to talk about a glorious Navy. And I couldn't help laughing at the fact that the copper plate had the word glorious spelled incorrectly. It originally said “Glorios,” and someone had, with white paint, filled in the missing “u.” Very classy.

But I did enjoy wandering around that museum, and I was in a great mood, due to the fact that I had moments ago beaten the glorious Bulgarian museum keepers.

See, as I walked up to the museum, the first thing I noted was a sign, half in Bulgarian, and half in English. I, of course, do not know for sure what the Bulgarian said, but I can tell you that there were prices listed. I can also tell you that the prices listed on the English side were all higher. That is, the cheapest English side price (Student maybe, or Child) was more than the highest price listed in Cyrillic! How do ya like that!

I went up to the kiosk, didn't say a word. I shoved my International Student Card at the lady, plus the amount that seemed to correspond to “Student” on the Cyrillic side of the fence, and waited. She looked at my card, looked at me, and gave me a ticket. I was thrilled. I beat the system! I went up against their best, and beat 'em at their own game! Hah! So I think I may have loved that museum even if it wasn't interesting at all.

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And I don't feel bad about breaking the rules. I don't want you to think that I would pretend to be under 16 in order to get a children's price at a movie theater. Nor would I pretend to be a member of some organization in order to get preferred pricing. But this pissed me off. I was being penalized for no reason other than the fact that I was a foreigner, bringing money into the economy. Harumph!

And this seemed to be a cross-industry situation. The exact same thing happened when I tried to get a hair-cut. I saw a list, which had Cyrillic at the top of one side, and the word “Foreigner” at the top of the other. This list was kind of funny in its own right, because it had little silhouettes of hair-cuts next to each price. You picked which one you wanted, and paid accordingly. But again, the Foreigner side was more expensive right down the line. Pissed me off.

So, not being able to pull off being Bulgarian for very long, I resorted to arguing with the lady. Basically, my side of the argument consisted of me pointing at the silhouette I wanted, and then pointing at the price on the Bulgarian side. Her side of the argument consisted of her talking in a tone of voice suggestive of the words “no way, Jack.” We discussed the situation at length, and eventually I walked out the door. I still don't understand why they'd rather get nothing than get a fair price. The work is worth a certain amount, but they won't do the exact same work for the exact same amount if my passport says American. Crazy.

And I saw the same thing in other places as well. When buying fruit in parts of Asia, I'd listen and watch carefully as the local in front of me made a purchase. Then I'd step up, get the exact same thing, and go to pay the exact same amount. No sale. The guy wants more. And we'd talk about it and talk about it, and eventually I'd leave without fruit. Why would they rather get no sale at all? I just didn't understand it, and I still don't. I'd say, “don't you want to sell your fruit? The price is obviously fair, because you sell to everyone else for that amount.” And they'd say, 㥻 rupiah,” or whatever their inflated price was. Drove me crazy.

It's not like this was the kind of merchandise you bargain for. A certain fruit in a certain village would cost a certain amount, and that was it. If you asked a woman (and believe me, I did) how much a mango was, she could tell you. Then she'd go to the market and buy a mango for that price. Maybe a tiny bit more or less. So it's not just that I don't know how to bargain.

I've actually read other people's opinions about the whole “local price” phenomenon. They say that it's only fair that people who are not friends and neighbors should not get “friend and neighbor pricing.” I couldn't disagree more. I think that the more someone is lost in your culture, the more you should go out of your way to help them. You give your friends and neighbors a price that is disadvantageous to you. Everyone else gets the market price. What's strange is that if you DID make friends with one of these people, they'd do anything to help you out. They'd treat you like royalty, because they know that you need help. But when you're just a random foreigner they take advantage of you as best as they can.

On the one hand, I understand why they try. They assume, mostly correctly, that foreigners have more money than they do and can afford inflated prices. But on the other hand, they also assume (again, mostly correctly) that the foreigner doesn't know what a fair price is, so they can rip 'em off a little easier. I went without hair cut that day, as I went without fruit on other days. Why did I care about a few cents here and there? I don't know, exactly. Partly because I like to think that I'm paving the way for future travelers by making it a little harder to rip us off. And partly because I don't like to feel like a chump.

But things like that are small annoyances in an otherwise fun life. Varna was mostly a pretty neat place to hang around. Still, after the museum and my abortive attempt to get my hair cut, the next thing to do was to get out of town.

Yes, I'm afraid that I just needed more than a lively city to keep me happy. It's one thing to sight-see by myself, which I actually enjoy. But eating, hanging out, seeing movies, or generally relaxing all by myself was getting a bit too much. I decided to get to a border town pronounced Roosa (but in spelled “Ryce” in Cyrillic, and usually spelled “Ruse” in our alphabet), and then find a way to Bucharest.

The plan in Eastern Europe often amounted to the same idea. Get a bus or train to a border, walk across said border, and then get a bus or train to whatever city in the new country you wanted to visit. The reason behind this convoluted measure was simply this: money. See, if you're sitting, say, in Varna, Bulgaria, and you want to get to, say, Bucharest, Romania, you have a few options. One option is to buy a train ticket all the way to Bucharest. Of course, that's the easiest thing to do, and a lot of people would never imagine doing anything else. But, just for a moment, let's check the prices.

Hmmm, a train ticket to the border might cost, let's say, $20. But a ticket to a town 20 feet on the other side of the border suddenly costs you $50! So, buying a ticket from one Eastern European capital to another might cost you two or three times as much as doing our little trick about walking across the border and buying a new ticket in the new country.

So I was Ruse bound. The whole train thing was confusing, and it turned out that I somehow sat in the wrong wagon. That's happened to me since, as well. I know I'm on the right train, but suddenly my wagon separates from the others, and I find myself headed toward some unknown village in Twilight Zone Europe. This time I was lucky. I kept asking everyone in who sat in my compartment whether I was on the right train, and eventually someone actually looked. He sent me and my pack to a different wagon where everyone agreed that I would get to Ruse. Which I did!

And in that border town, which is apparently a major port on the Danube river, I stayed exactly eight hours. My train arrived at 10:30 pm, and I sat in the station until 8:30am the next morning. So, no, I didn't bother trying to walk across the border, as I had so nobly planned, but instead hopped on a train out of Ruse and all the way to Bucharest, only about 50 miles away. I didn't realize at the time that Bulgaria without any companionship beats the hell out of Romania without any companionship. My little fits of discomfort about the idea of being ripped off a few pennies Varna would seem, once I took in what Romania had to offer, like daydreams of bunnies and candies on a warm spring day. Well, maybe just bunnies, and maybe with a slight chill to the air. Or let's say not bunnies so much, but more like gophers, or kinda mean little, um, something mean, but basically harmless. Yeah, something like that. Anyway, it was better than Romania.

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Here's some of my journal from my time in Romania:

June 1st

Bucharest. Well. AMEX had changed addresses without telling their Sophia branch. When I finally found it, they told me that they were not yet able to sell traveler's checks, but wait a few days - no problem. She didn't explain what I was supposed to eat without money (luckily there are no restaurants in Romania).

So I went to an exchange office and got robbed on the rate for using a credit card. I also got robbed on the way in by the official passport guy who changed my (Bulgarian) Lev for (Romanian) Lei. What happened was that I asked the officer on the train whether I could pay for my Visa to Romania in Bulgarian money. He said no, that I'd have to pay in U.S. Dollars. I did.

So then he pointed out that he could also change my Bulgarian money into Romanian. Now, I NEVER would have done this with him (rather than a money exchange office), but I was stuck. It's illegal to bring Bulgarian money out of the country, and he knew that I had it. So he ripped me off.

Now for the restaurant story. I found a restaurant in Bucharest (no small feat). I ordered chicken, and I ordered a Coke. I received chicken (in a very nice garlic sauce), home-fries, my Coke, and a piece of bread (which I am resigned to paying extra for). O.k., I get the bill.

Six items on the bill. Obviously I don't speak Romanian, so the waitress and I pointed a lot, and I finally figured out MOST of the bill.

Right, there's the chicken - I recognize that word, there's the Coke (which, through some perversion of nature was called Pepsi on the bill - even though it was a can of Coke). It costs over a dollar, but it was still a Coke. I figured one item was the bread. O.k., two items left. Did you guess the fries? I didn't, but fries were extra. That annoyed me a bit, but it isn't unheard of to pay for fries (though you do expect to ORDER them before you pay for them). I didn't fuss.

The last item took a long time to figure out, and we eventually had to call the manager (who spoke French) to the table.

Ready? The sauce. The garlic sauce on the chicken was extra. Welcome to Bucharest.

I only stayed one night in Bucharest, and now I'm in Brasov, in Transylvania. The second biggest city (town) in Romania, it's as far removed from Bucharest as the second highest political office is from the first. Pretty, quiet, with mountains and old, old buildings. Close to other towns of interest, and the best hiking in the country. Nice.

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June 6th

I'm in Budapest. I'd met up with three travelers in Brasov. Two American guys - Dave (from Minnesota) and Aaron (Seattle), and a Canadian (Kate). Pretty good group. We stayed at crazy Maria's house. She meets people at the station and cajoles them into staying at her house.

At 6:30 a.m. we were all awakened by some guy screaming in Romanian (what else would he scream in?). We didn't know what he wanted, but he sure was pissed. I got up to see what he was on about, and figured it out as soon as my feet hit the carpet.

The place was flooded. A half-inch of water covered the floor. Screaming man lives underneath and wanted money for the damage to his place. Luckily (really God, thanks for this one) my sweet external frame pack kept my stuff high enough off the ground to stay dry. We did not want to pay the guy (or Maria) any money, so decided that the best thing to do would be to get OUT right away. Who knows if they lock people up in Romania for flooding apartments and not paying the damages? This could even be a scam to extort money from us.

It wasn't. We eventually figured out why the place flooded. Maria had warned us that the water did not come out of the tap between seven at night and about four in the morning. Well, we had thrown dishes in the sink the night before, and apparently Aaron had turned on the tap to wash them. No water came out, and I guess he forgot why 'cause he didn't turn the tap OFF. Stupid.

I figure that the water rushed out at four a.m. and the dishes blocked the drain. Wouldn't take long to overflow.

So Aaron was responsible, but skipped out with the rest of us. I feel bad for Maria, but I wasn't willing to hang around to see who she'd blame.

So the plan was to get some breakfast, catch an afternoon train to Sigasoara for a night, and then to Budapest. Then Dave and I were going to Krakow (although I think he was thinking of backing out of Poland). Anyway, they went for breakfast, and I went later to meet them - BUT - I did not find them; they had given simple directions, but I was lost. THEN - after I ate I went to Maria's to see if they were there BUT - they had left and I had missed the train. OK.

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Civil Servants Must Die!

I looked at the lady in the booth, and said, Sigasoara, and she said OK. She gave me a stub (no destination on it) and told me which train at what time. I, your faithful author, was on that train.

Striking up a conversation on a Romanian train is a trying experience when you don't speak Romanian. No one really speaks English (although more than in Bulgaria), and French is too sketchy to rely on. But, I got a pretty good idea that I was on the wrong train. After a while, I was sure. My train was bound for Sibiu.

Now, gentle reader, roll the following word off your tongue - Sigasoara (Sigashowaura). Now try this one: Sibiu (Sibeeyew). You'd have to be seriously uninterested in what the young American kid is saying to confuse those two words. Sibiu is a nice place. Yup. But being separated by mountains and a long train ride from Sigasoara meant that I would probably never see those guys again. Depressing. I liked them.

So I figured I'd just head straight to Budapest. Soon as I got off the train at (fucking) Sibiu I went to the ticket counter. Do you speak English? Yes. Ok, I'm trying to get to Budapest….

She tells me that the train leaves daily at 6:30 a.m. No problem. I have to be there an hour early to buy the ticket. Right, I'm up at 5:00 a.m. and at the station by 5:30. The people at the counter speak no English, but French will work.
Un billet à Budapest, s'il vous plaît. [A ticket to Budapest, please]
-Comment? Mais il n'y a pas un train à Budapest maintenant! [What? But there's no train to Budapest now!]
But, but… but… She said….

-Non, non, maintenant est un train à Bucharest. Budapest va partir à une heure moins trois minutes. A.M. [No, no, now is a train to BUCHAREST. Budapest will leave at 12:57 AM!!!!!!!!!]

Uh, in case you're not following, that's about 20 hours away.

I mean, is it me? Is it my accent? But why do some people understand BUDAPEST while others hear BUCHAREST? I don't think this is an accent thing. It's a matter of carelessness. See, most people don't go to Sigasoara (a small town in the mountains), they go to Sibiu. Most people don't go from Sibiu to Budapest (in Hungary), they go to Bucharest. So it's easy to hear the obvious, and not bother listening.

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So, it's 5:30 a.m., I have no place to go, very little money and a lot of time to kill. I still don't know how much the ticket to Budapest costs, 'cause they can't actually sell me one from Sibiu - they sell me one to a town 5-6 km from the border and from there I buy one to Budapest. So I'm pretty nervous about spending any money, in case I don't have enough to buy that ticket.

Right, wait a minute - I figured I'd head to that border town and see if there's a train from there. Maybe there are lots of trains to Budapest from that close to the border. There was a 1:30 train heading to that town, and I wanted to be on it.

I don't eat lunch 'cause I'm saving my dough for the ticket to Budapest, and at 1:30 I'm off. Get to the town and the ticket to Budapest is an outrageous (and unaffordable) amount. But there's this Romanian kid (an orphan, I guess. Anyway a street kid). He says - ya gotta get to Hungary, then buy a ticket - it'll be much cheaper.

I know he's right, so I get on a train to Arad. Then I wait. The day has passed into night, then overnight. Next morning I catch a (5:30 a.m.) train to Nadlock (two km from the border). Once there (it's raining, by the way) I ask - where's Hungary? They point, I walk.

Cross the border. I walk immediately up to the official money-changer at the border to change my Romanian lei to (Hungarian) Forints. Nope. They don't take it. They don't take Romanian money. The border money changer does not change Romanian money!

Trouble.

And lest you think that my best bet is to step back over the border into Romania and at least have a meal with my last Romanian money, I will point out that an American needs $40 (in U.S. currency, remember) for a Visa to get into Romania. They wouldn't let me in.

Now - I've been awake well over 24 hours. I have no local (or hard) currency. I have not eaten. It's Sunday, so I can't even get a bank to give me money from my credit card. The nearest town (i.e. restaurant or hotel that might take Visa) is about 20 km away. It's raining.

I walk. Not too far before I can hitch a ride to Marko, the nearest town. I gave the driver all my now worthless Romanian money. He seems happy to take it.

Hunger was the main thing and I was looking for a restaurant to take my card. Right. They've never heard of credit cards. Really, like in Romania when I asked if I could buy a train ticket with American Express and the lady said - oh, express to Bucharest!

The next town is a really big one (it's even on my terrible map) so I know they'll take credit cards. 28 km away. I start walking. By the time I passed the sign that said Marko 8 km back, I was pretty miserable. I changed my clothes 'cause I figured no one would pick up a complete mud-ball. I even tried napping while escaping the rain under a tin roof that covered a closed gas station. Oops, it wasn't closed, just empty. Once I realized that, of course, I moved on.

A little way up the road I ran into a parked van with five Romanian guys in it eating brunch or something. I gave a - hey, can you help out a poor, wet kid? - look, and they told me that they were going to Vienna. Vienna, by the way, is just past Budapest on the highway. So - I was saved.

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So that's all I've got for now. Hungary and happier times coming up next.