Thanks to John and Helene for the invite to report on my adventure -- note I didn't call it a vacation -- because it was truly an adventure...
For 23 days I traveled Eastern Europe via train September 26-October 18 -- two overnight trains and 14 other trains in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Romania and passing through Hungary and Yugoslavia. Traveled alone and I know not one word of any language but English. Here's how it went...
Trains: Trains were on time, windows were dirty, toilets were dirty, full of neat college kids in Slovakia going back to school and then going home for the weekend. Sleeper from Sofia to Bucharest cost $15 (in addition to Bulgarian rail pass cost) In overnight trains car official takes your passport and keeps it with him until you are ready to get off, then he returns it. Train views were fabulous especially in Slovakia where the mountains provided the most exquisite background for the setting sun. Saw farmers doing final harvesting -- backbreaking work done by hand.
Had two suitcases, both on wheels. Still not easy because in EE train stations don't have elevators, escalators, or curb cuts. Sample adventure in a station: Walk up about 15 stairs to station. Try to determine "arrivals" and "departures" in another language. Look for your destination (many times it's not listed if it is an intermediary station) figure out your track number, go down a flight of about 25 stairs, pass through tunnel to your track number, go up 25 stairs to your platform.
When train comes try to determine which car you are in. Although ticket is marked with car number many times car itself is not numbered. Get on, hopefully correct car, and find your seat number. Overnight trains have inside compartment lock, but you must get up for border crossings -- both with border guards and customs folks -- and they don't come together. Count on two wakeups for each border crossed.
Many times women would help me with my suitcases as much as men. Sometimes one person in the compartment would speak English -- sometimes no one. Bring your own toilet paper to the w.c. at the end of the car.
In Slovakia I stopped in Banska Bystrica (3 days), Kosice (2 days), and Martin (3 days where I have relatives) Slovakia was the most mountainous country I was in.
Tour in English in the War Museum in Kosice was worth the extra price. I learned a lot about Slovak history -- Slovakia was conquered, traded, and betrayed throughout her history.
Hotels: Hotels seemed to go out of their way trying to woo Westerners. All had TVs, remote controls, and telephones -- many had refrigerators with drinks (you had to pay for them when you left) Biggest surprise with hotels was cost of faxes to U.S. $12-$15 each page. First night I was surprised with an extra bill for $88 for faxes. That high price continued throughout EE. When I discussed it with the manager in Kosice, she said their overseas rates are very high and the hotel just adds a small percent to the bill.
Food: Breakfast came with hotel room and usually included sandwich fixins, leftover salad from dinner the night before, (rarely, but sometimes, cereal -- but then with warm milk) sometimes scrambled eggs. In Slovakia I followed a guidebook's recommendations on where to eat and found a lovely restaurant where you sit down wherever there is room -- even if it is in a booth with another party. I was told that is common. Had many good conversations that way.
Best food was from my relatives in Martin. As I went to Bulgaria and Romania I was more careful about food and avoided sauces and anything that should be refrigerated. Usually asked for vegetable soup and bread. They can't conceive of anyone bypassing meat by choice and I sometimes had a hard time convincing them I didn't want meat. They also served me the whitest bread they could find -- again I had a hard time telling them I wanted serious bread. But when I got it -- such as brown bread with cooked onions in it, it was wonderful.
Colors: The most popular color for things new and things renovated seems to be purple -- sometimes with turquoise or pink -- but for sure purple. Storefronts, clothes, including men's clothing (saw a man with a purple sport jacket), baby buggies. Purple seems to be the color of joy there.
Relatives: My relatives were so happy to see me. I was there three years ago and I'm sure they thought they would never see me again. I had written ahead of time and sent a sample of the family tree with photos. Told them I wanted to take picture of them for the family tree. They were all dressed up in their finest, most joyful colors, had wonderful food for me and treated me like a treasured person. Two young girls 10 and 11 years old gave me a welcome speech in English and sang "Old MacDonald had a farm." I had hired an English teacher as a translator.
Houses: Relatives' houses ran the gamete from a single family home in Martin -- the wealthy ones -- with a back yard, patio, bathroom with toilet in the same room as sink and bathtub...to a one-bedroom flat for four on the third floor. Mom, dad and two girls share a bedroom with parents in a double bed and girls in bunk beds. In the villages some of the houses were bigger or seemed to have more room.
Frequently, if you could afford a house, you couldn't afford a car. All houses had TVs; toilet is a separate room with sink and bathtub being in a room together. Most kitchens had a large pantry where canned goods (like canning -- not tin cans) were stored. Refrigerator was small with tiny freezer inside the refrigerator -- similar to what U.S. had in the 1950s.
Stove is narrow with four burners crowded together. No dishwasher. Many have clothes washer in bathroom -- with bathtub used as a place for pail with clothes being soaked, fabric platform for drying sweaters and such and a clothesline above that. All must be removed to take a bath. Balcony is used for drying clothes because they don't have clothes dryers. Balcony is also used as overflow refrigerator.
Gypsies and other beggars: In Budapest (had to change trains at midnight) while waiting for train gypsy woman came crying and dramatizing that her luggage was stolen and wanted me to go with her to try to retrieve it -- and leave my luggage behind. I told her "I'm sorry I can't help you" and she ran away -- but 10 feet away walked at a normal pace.
Girl, 10 years old in Bucharest train station kissed the sleeve of my jacket. I waved her away -- didn't want to encourage her by giving her anything and having her friends then come. She appeared on my train before it pulled out. My suitcases were on the floor in front of my feet, so she laid down on the floor and slid past my suitcases like a snake to the man sitting next to me and kissed his dirty shoes. He got up and gave her some money and she went off.
Bearded man with no teeth came mumbling something to our train compartment in Bucharest, made the sign of the cross, then put out his hand for a handout for asking for a blessing.
Neat things and surprises: Kosice has Internet Cafe where for $2.50/hr you can connect to the Internet and have a cup of coffee. Friends in Romania met me at the train station with a rose. Saw the most beautiful little opera house in Iasi, Romania and a splendid performance.
Iasi, Romania is a beautiful, cultured, university town with kind, enthusiastic people. Sofia, Bulgaria, didn't tear down all the statues of sickles and hammers and Stalin and Lenin. They don't want their children to think they are making up Communist domination.
Learned: EE folks separate Communists from Russians (sometimes we in U.S. have lumped them together) Russians are people who have also been victimized by the Communists. Macdonald's (Styrofoam plates or not) is the university of business administration for EE. Many EE folks need attitudes changed from "what can I get away with" and "how can I do less on the job" which was a survival attitude under the Communists to "how can I do my job better" and "I'm so glad I have this job, I'll just work as hard and well as I can to show my appreciation" which is the attitude they need to be competitive with Western economies.
I could go on and on. The most frequently asked question of me was: Are you travelling alone? And the answer was yes. And I'd do it again in a heartbeat. I never felt fearful for my safety. That doesn't mean I wasn't singing God Bless America and kissing my American passport as I boarded the plane in Bucharest. I am so lucky my grandparents were risktakers and chose to take a steamship ride 101 years ago.
Had two interesting seatmates on the return: From Bucharest to Amsterdam was a young man from Romania in his late 20s going to Chicago to Hamburger University (Macdonald's in Oak Brook IL). I think highly of that company for taking a risk in EE and training these folks who have so many years of Communist culture to overcome.
Second seatmate on 8 hour flight from Amsterdam to Dulles: Black man hiding under blanket. When he finally emerged I learned he had "won the lottery". Not the plain vanilla money lottery, but the "best" lottery -- the lottery to emigrate to the United States. He had been hiding under the blanket because he traveled all night from Nigeria to Amsterdam and had been saying a final farewell to his parent and friends as he prepared to never see them again. But his joy at having won the lottery to emigrate was unmistakable. We are so lucky -- no, I am so lucky.
Thanks for reading this and letting me relive my wonderful adventure as I wrote it.