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The Birds of Hamburg

The road to Hamburg had one big traffic jam; we got off and tried to go around it but ultimately I think it would have taken the same amount of time if we’d just toughed it out. Someone opined that Google Maps doesn’t give everyone the same advice, to keep the various possibilities equally busy.

It was fairly difficult in Hamburg to find a parking spot near the restaurant, but yet we did, a couple long blocks away. We joined our friend Sebastian and his girlfriend Jenny, and our friend Thomas from Braunschweig, who is Sebastian’s business partner. The restaurant was French; we had merguez with couscous, and a nice fish. Afterwards, we all crammed in the car, and drove to Jenny’s house, which is in a fabulous neighborhood. An apartment house among mansions. We were “staying at Sebastian’s girlfriend’s”, but on other nights, people would stay there as an airbnb. We walked to a nearby bar, but it was full of Germans watching Manchester and Newcastle play soccer. We chose a quieter place, an English pub down the street with no TV. Soon our friend Kevin joined us, after biking over from the train station after work. The owner, a Swedish lady, corrected my pronunciation when I said we were going to Malmo (“mal-mow”) instead of Malmö (“malm-oo” not unlike the oo in book). She touched both our beards and found them very soft. We took pictures with her. Jenny said her admiration verged on #MeToo territory, but Tina did ask, after all. Schlubby guys in their 60’s don’t get weary of admiration the way really really pretty Hamburg girls do, in their 20’s.

We walked to the main street to find coffee. On the way, we saw a pretty bird, very tiny, a big patch of orange beneath its beak: this turned out to be a European Robin. And another multicolored bird, brown on top but with distinctive blue patches on the wings: this was a European Jay. At the local outlet of Balzac Coffee, where we were warned the credit card machine didn’t work. We tried the WiFi, and realized that its lack of function was probably why the credit card machine didn’t work. But they did squeeze oranges.

After doing another load of laundry, we set out walking around noon, and kept walking all day until dinner at 7:30. We walked along the shore of the lake near where we were staying, checking out the various water birds. The most impressive were the Great Crested Grebes, two of whom were assembling a little island made out of tufts of grass. They almost look like they have bunny ears. We passed the US Embassy, with its usual defenses. Eventually we ended up at the Radiation Martyrs Memorial, to remember the doctors and scientists who worked with radioactive material before people were aware of its dangers. There are hundreds of people listed; I think they may have stopped adding more. Marie Curie was pretty early in the list. After that we went to the Deichtorhallen, which had a show featuring the work of Robert Longo. He exhibits very large politically charged photographs. Except they are charcoal drawings of those photographs. A raft of refugees on a turbulent ocean. A bullet hole at Charlie Hebdo. Football players coming onto the field with their hands up. He also curated drawings from Fernando Goya, and movies at 1/100th speed from Sergei Eisenstein, and tied it all together into one exhibition. Later, we walked past the philharmonic hall, a cute piece of architecture from the outside, at lesat, then down the Reeperbahn to join our friends for dinner, this time also including Lindsay, up from Berlin. Kevin brought a few of his coworkers from Apple as well.

Postcards from Cologne

Since we had a car, we optimized for choosing hotels with a parking lot, which usually means a ways from the city center. Advertising their weakest point, the one in Cologne was named “Centro Ayun”.

Centro Ayun is spotty. The lobby is spacious and designery. The rooms are not so spacious and still designery. The hallways are narrow and winding, as if this was a 500 year old building, but it’s not, because Germany started from scratch in 1946, and anything that looks old in a big city looks that way because the city planners in 1946 wanted it to look that way.

It’s not as if they are being inauthentic. All these old world buildings got knocked down in some firefight every few centuries. Nobody blames San Francisco for having started over in 1906.

The garage at Centro Ayun is the oddest of all. The spaces are made for smart cars in flatland, which you sort of expect in underground garages not designed for billion dollar urban projects, but the acoustics are dead. It hits you in the face. When you slam the door, there’s no boom. When you speak, there’s no reverb. The ceiling is all acoustical tile. The floor is concrete, but apparently the ceiling damps the sound entirely. We saw this effect in some other German motor hotel parking lots, but nowhere so dramatically as at Centro Ayun. I wrote this in my TripAdvisor review, but I don’t think any people are going to choose a motel based on the sound their car door isn’t going to make when they slam it.

Sundays are just useless. So are Mondays. The first restaurant we tried was closed Sundays, so we went to Aachenerstrasse, and parked immediately, which you don’t expect in a strange town. Aachenerstrasse is lined with sidewalk tables and happy eating drinking people. There is probably a German word for that. As I had no need to be happy, we turned down a side street and found a place called Belgischerhof, and since we’d just arrived from Belgium, we went in. It was marvelous. I think it might be a lesbian gay cafe. All these lipstick lesbians around — not just the Lesbian-Or-German-Lady meme. Pairs of guys, too. We started with a savory creme brulee (the brulee was still sugar). Then we had a flammkuchen (tarte flambée they call it in Alsace, basically a pizza) and a breaded pounded rabbit, and a rhubarb crumble.

On Monday, we left the car at the hotel, paying to park it in the basement where there were big pillars between every pair of cars, and one made 13-point turns to get in and out without touching anything. It was a short walk to the tram, on which we managed to buy tickets with only credit cards and it only took halfway to town to do it.

First, the Apostoler church, where you aren’t supposed to take photos, but I forgot and nobody said anything. They had instructive statues of saints there, with their symbols and attributes plainly displayed. Outside was a grim statue of Konrad Adenauer, the model German post-war politician, and a former mayor of Köln. When I first learned that there was a Germany, Adenauer was the Chancellor, and I still expect to see that inhuman moral certainty manifested in anyone who leads.

Adenauer exemplified the Christian center-right: Roman Catholics who preached hatred for two millennia, hatred of Jews and women and indigenous people who didn’t want to be slaves, and any Christians not subservient to the Pope, and Pagans, and any homosexual or pedophile who didn’t shut up about it after the altar boy dried the spots off his choir robe, and just to be on the safe side, tortured and killed several millions of them, over the course of time and power, and then come 1933 were shocked – shocked! – that this little fellow with the mustache took them at their word, and so they pouted and retreated to their country houses and their abbeys for 12 years and crawled out amid the ruins of their secret utopia to lead the charge against Communism.

Next, we found a nice bakery recommended by Duje, and a nice place to have coffee across the street that had one of the brass statues you see on park benches around the world, in the style of a Normal Person with whom you could pose for a photo. This particular statue seemed to be popular with people having a smoke. Vast numbers of people in Europe still use tobacco. All the gestures you see in movies, they actually make them. In America, one gestures with one’s cell phone. Not so many gestures. Only the hunched-over one, the lighting-up-in-the-wind pose.

Bakeries are a problem. You want everything, and you wouldn’t feel good if you got it.

We walked towards the center on a pedestrian road. We passed a little store with some postcard racks, which had a sign inside saying “postcards upstairs”. Upstairs there were more post cards than there are on the Internet, cleverly presented: one flipped pieces of cardboard, each of which displayed three different postcards. There were probably 10 racks of photo postcards, and another 12 racks of art postcards. This was not, however, an antique store; all the cards were current editions, in print. We must have spent at least an hour there, and picked 38 of the best to write to people on.

We walked from there to Kolumba, the only museum in Cologne open on Monday. It was built on the foundations of a church which had been built on the foundations of several other churches, and they are all visible from the ground floor archaelogical walkway. One corner of it was a tiny functioning chapel; the rest was a private art museum.

The guidebooks say that it is a religious art museum, but I didn’t see it. It has religious art. It also has art from Roman times, and modern times. It had art by someone who apparently lived to be only five years old. I may have been misinterpreting the caption. The captions are all contained in a little booklet you take with you from room to room; there are no signs next to the pieces, only small numbers to index by. For me, the most remarkable piece was called a “cage cup”: just for a stunt, an ancient glassmaker has made a glass cup, then enclosed it in a bunch of glass tubes in the form of a cage separated by glass standoffs from the inner goblet. They are rare, and when the archaeologist who found it told his site boss, he was not believed because it was April 1.

Then we walked to Cologne’s main attraction, the cathedral. It is such a part of the city’s identity that someone told us that it had not been bombed much in WWII so that pilots could use it to identify the city before they bombed something else. It is immensely tall. The outside is immensely ornate, with gargoyles and flying buttresses, and many statues on and above every door. Many stained glass windows, but many which are quite plain. One is just a bunch of pixels, specified by the artist Gerhard Richter, but it might as well be the starting frame of a level in the game “I Love Hue”.

We met our friend Alex, who drove an hour and a half after work to see us. We’d seen him in Kassel six months ago. He joined us at Päffgen, a brewery that was suggested by two different people. In Köln, they don’t drink beer, they drink Kölsch, served in 20 cl glasses. It is the only beer they serve here. We had an enormous pig “knuckle” (lower leg, actually), and a veal roulade. Alex was sensible and had only a bowl of soup. It got very loud in there and we got out and walked around for awhile. Around 9, Alex left to get ready for another day, and we met my ex-coworker Martin, who had moved from California to Cologne, via Hamburg. We went to a bar which was practically empty, and had two enthusiastic bartenders who did synchronized shaking just like in the movie. By 11:30 or so it was already half-full. Martin said it would be swinging at 2 AM. We left and took the tram back to the hotel before verifying that.

On Tuesday we got up early and drove into town, parked under the cathedral, and went to the Ludwig Museum. It was decent, with a pretty wide and deep collection of works since 1900 or so. They are said to have 900 Picasso works, though we saw only about 50, if you count each plate separately. By the time we got through the whole place it was time to drive to Hamburg to meet our friends for dinner at 6:30.

Paris in the the Spring

Thursday the 5th was difficult. We began by getting up too early because Dave’s iPhone had spontaneously decided to revert to Kiev time, after nearly a week in Central Europe. I could have probably used the extra hour of sleep. Leaving before 7 AM, we dropped Philipp off at his car and managed somehow to return the rental car in Berlin and got on the not-cancelled-because-of-strike Air France-now-called-Joon flight and up and down and at the gate.

At Charles DeGaulle airport, we got off the plane. The first sign of weirdness was having to go through passport control for our flight from Berlin, which was in the Schengen area along with France. The second sign was that the RER B trains, which one takes from the airport to central Paris, were on strike. After we finally were admitted to the country, we collected our bags and boarded a bus to Porte Maillot, cold, windy. I tried setting up Uber to take us the last mile, but it kept failing. They later explained that they don’t support Apple Pay in France. Now if they could make their error messages explain that, it would be much more helpful.

We ended up taking a taxi, which cost 8.30 euros, to the Hotel Boissière. The man at the desk remembered us.

When we got to the hotel, Ray’s mission was to buy tickets to get to Brussels to pick up our rental car three days later. We decided we couldn’t trust the trains, so we bought Flixbus tickets. We had tickets for a 7:30 concert, and I made it my mission to pick a place to eat before the show. Since 5:30 was early for Paris, my choice was between a brasserie or something ethnic, and I chose Le Cardinal, a brasserie not far from the venue. They featured platters of shellfish, and we ordered one which was just shrimps and whelks. (We were scared off of the oysters by one negative Yelp review.) The Algerian waiter was very friendly but also very busy, serving our entire end of the restaurant all by himself, so if we weren’t completely ready to order something, he would leave and come back later. People in the tourist trade like speaking Arabic to Hind. From an American, I think they find it a novelty. But mixed seafood platters; you can do better in France.

Doug had suggested seeing the concert, which featured Dhafer Youssef, an oud player. It was basically a straight-ahead jazz quartet, with piano, bass, and drum. The oud was the solo instrument, and Mr. Youssef also sung with a very wide range of pitches, including a few straight out of Yma Sumac. It sounded to me like he was using some electronics with his voice, but my friends doubted that was the case. The entire concert was exciting from beginning to end. All of the players were very proficient, and Isfar Sarabski, the 28-year-old piano player from Azerbaijan was incredible. Unfortunately this group hasn’t recorded yet, but I’ll get the CD when they do.

We were staying in the same hotel in Levallois-Perret that we stayed at for a week in October last year, from which I walked to the Avid office. This time, I walked back there for one more day of work. Meanwhile, Ray found the local laverie and washed all of our laundry. Later, we met Doug and Hind at Grand Coeur, the restaurant they’d picked out to celebrate Doug’s birthday, not far from the Pompidou Center. We had a table for eight, but there were just four of us for about an hour. Two of them were spending that time trying to find a place to park; the others were merely late. Everything was delicious, and Doug picked out a special Chambertin red wine to celebrate with.

Saturday we met up with Kris, an eclipse-chasing friend who’s been living in Paris, meeting him in “Chinatown” in the 13th. We found a restaurant that was popular with the correct ethnicities, waited in line just a short while, then had some duck noodle soup, fried rice, and a delicious eggplant “marmite”, the French version of a clay pot, with salty dried fish, and bacon morsels. We walked through the neighborhood for awhile, and all the outdoor cafes were completely packed, as this was the first warm day in a long time.

Eventually we said goodbye to Kris, and met Doug and Hind up near an exhibition showing the work of young photographers from all over the world, sharing space in a building with a vegan food expo, and some kind of dance event. People were breakdancing, doing yoga poses, and doing tricks with soccer balls.

The most memorable works included a guy who scuplted Aleppo ruins out of soap from that city, the world’s oldest well-attested soap (since then I have used no other). There was a vertical tasting of photos over the years of a pair of identical twin sisters, one of whom transitioned to being male at some point. Those are the ones that can be described. I guess you can get something from a verbal description of the man who concocted a fake army memory album from photos of soldiers adopting poses from famous artists from Degas to Yoko Ono. The Turkish journalist who is under arrest at the moment for photographing the sex parties and dog fights of Istanbul; as usual, no post cards of the bits that you want.

Hind is from Lebanon, and refuses to eat at Lebanese restaurants in general, which aren’t nearly as good as what she can cook herself. So we were surprised when she suggested we should go to Aux Delices du Liban. But they actually did make babaganoush which was up to her level. The rest of it was delicious as well.

On our way home, the TVs in the Metro said that the general strike planned for Sunday and Monday would shut down the RER B again. But it did not mention the Metro, so we became optimistic that would be a good way to get to the bus station. Especially because there was a marathon Sunday morning, which easily could have messed up Uber/Taxi traffic, much as it messed us up in Berlin six months earlier. And Sunday morning, we easily got to the Bercy station, seeing lots of runners on the train going to the starting point of the race.

But it seems that the bus station is blockaded. First of all, the area immediately around the bus station was surrounded by fences and white tents. It did not appear to be a refugee camp, because there weren’t any people cooking flatbread over trash fires behind the fences, just a few contradictory signs in front and tourists wheeling their suitcases up and down the sidewalk looking for a break in the siege.

When we got to the bus station, we found there were no cafes and that we were far from any retail areas. There were only a few vending machines to get water for the trip. We’d given ourselves plenty of time, so we waited around and finally got on our Flixbus and underway at the scheduled time (9 AM).

Arriving in Brussels was similar: we arrived at a deserted bus/train station, except that this one really did feel like a refugee camp. People on sleeping bags on mats sleeping, waiting, waiting…and there was virtually no information about what to do, no apparent way to get to the train station that would have taken us one stop down to the main station, which is where Sixt car was. The refugee camp didn’t feel particularly dangerous, just smelled like pee. (It turns out the ticket machines are easy to use, but they don’t accept my US credit card, and they don’t take bills, only coins.) By this time I’d gotten my Uber app working, so we were able to elevate ourselves above the situation of the refugees and get chauffeured through mostly parked traffic for a short distance in the center of Brussels, to Sixt.

Our car was not ready. Maybe a diesel minivan? No? OK, come back in an hour.

We found an ATM and crossed the plaza to a train station restaurant who had stopped serving waffles already for the day. The waiter was loud and funny and could have entertained us in ten languages, I feel certain.

After an hour sipping coffee and tea, we returned to Sixt; getting the contract turned out to be a long-winded task because “the system was down.” We had ordered a “BMW 1-series or similar”, which turned out to be a MINI Clubman. It reeked of some horrible disinfectant did not dissipate completely over the whole course of the rental. We also discovered that even though we were listening to my iPod, German traffic announcements would break in and interrupt it. And we couldn’t turn off that feature because Sixt had disabled the Settings menu. Sigh.

We got our car, slowly slowly, got out of town back the same way the Uber had come, slowly slowly, and drove to Köln.

White Easter

Dave and I spent Easter quietly. Not only was it April Fool’s Day, a holiday which has suffered greatly in recent years from figure-ground considerations, but it was also Bibo’s birthday. She was birthday’d out over the previous couple of days (it’s never only one person’s birthday, when it’s your birthday) and had only invited a couple of friends over. So, we sat at their house and drank wine (which came from a gas station, as it was Sunday) and roasted vegetables and at the end of the evening, suddenly decided to make a Marble Cake using only most of the ingredients in the recipes on the Internet because it was still Sunday and nobody felt like going out in the Schneeregen to buy Eierlikör and rum. Also, I didn’t follow the recipe carefully enough regarding the division of flour and cocoa, so the brown part came out dry.

The next morning, there was a slice of marble cake at the hotel breakfast, so I learned how it was supposed to be. I can’t think if I’ve ever made one before.

Easter Monday is a holiday in Germany as well. Our friend Philipp came to see us at Thomas’s house, and we had a long discussion about whether we should take his car or our reserved rental car to drive to Poland, a discussion which ended when we read the contract and found out the rental car was nonrefundable. So, Philipp drove us to the airport to get the car.

Travel blogs, like slide shows, like post cards, like memory, never give a notion of what travel is actually like, what life is actually like. It isn’t just the disconcerting crazy touts in deserted subway stops. When I say, “Philipp drove us to the airport to get the car,” I’m actually alluding to the major time expenditure of the day, the major intellectual challenge, the major terrors of the merge, miscommunications, angst, homesickness, but who wants to hear a turn-by-turn description of trying to find where Hertz lives at Tegel International Airport? Better to concentrate on vignettes of the strange and fleeting salad components. Years mature into fruits, so that some small seeds of moments may outlive them. Rabindranath Tagore said that, and I have never had the slightest clue what he was talking about.

We parked Philipp’s car on the side of a road in a north Berlin suburb, and all drove in the rented Opel Corsa to Poland. We had dinner at a supremely Polish restaurant that nobody thought would be open because of Easter Monday, but it was. I’m omitting the customary 45 minutes of chatter about where to go and the 45 minutes to get there past interesting shop windows. The waiters were super nice. The food was the usual North Europe fare: sauerkraut, pickles, big hunks of meat. Afterwards we walked home past the darkening shop windows.

Let’s talk about shop windows. There is a recurring theme in the world, where you come across some crazy thing you have never seen before, and you wonder briefly if it is Local Color and Why One Travels, but after looking at how carefully the colors relate and how precisely the font is kerned, you realize that you have run into an instance of a Chain that you have somehow avoided, and that Five Guys isn’t hometown Sebring at all. I can recite some instances. There was United Colors of Bennetton in Roseau, Dominica. Nando’s chicken in South Africa. Also on that trip, Amarula, a rare creamy liqueur that there was no way to get outside of South Africa except by carrying it with you, until the next year when they got distribution to the inner solar system. Five Guys, I never knew of them until 2016. I don’t care how many outlets they have, great French fries. We bought Justin a crazy plate in an artistic communal compound on the east bank of the Vistula in Warsaw. There’s an outlet in San Francisco.

Anyway, the next day Philipp and I walked around Szczecin aimlessly, unless you count following the red dotted tourist line. Bought stamps. Salad and Panini at the view restaurant that the top of the Capitol Records building, which isn’t called that, but that’s what it resembles. We passed a store with tons of Quirky Stuff. It was called “Flying Tiger” It’s like, IKEA for girls who live in very small houses. Kitchenware that makes Alessi look like Bauhaus. They have a gazillion stores in a ton of countries but only eight in the US, and they are all an hour’s drive from Manhattan. Who is advising their corporate expansion? The look and feel isn’t even New York. You can’t kill people with any of them, nor do they signify that you spent $6,000 on your cufflinks. In fact, I learned a new word from Wikipedia, when looking up Flying Tiger. Flying Tiger is a Price Point Retailer. This is apparently the microeconomics term for Five and Dime store, or Daiso. All the items are priced at the point where the elastic demand would snap in your face if the price went higher. In the US these points often end with 99 cents, but I haven’t noticed that numerology in Europe. Philipp bought a harmonica for ten zloty.

In the afternoon, we had a snack at Mata Tomurska, which has real jazz on its soundtrack, and after we got Dave from work, dinner at a brew pub whose food was better than its beer. Unfortunate. Maybe they wanted their dark ale to be warm and flat, but I don’t see it.

The next day, Philipp and I took the car and drove up to the Baltic Coast. Because it was April, instead of March, it was a little more lively than Nessebar had been the week before but not by much. Their cotton candy awaits sugar-starved Polish families, but they aren’t there yet. What is that smell, that isn’t quite pure vanilla? Does it come in tank cars? Why can’t the manufacturers spend a little bit more time making it smell like good pastry instead of Play-Doh? Is this really what the customer wants?

We bought cheese at a Biedronka supermarket. Philipp bought some doughnuts that he remembered from a camping trip in Poland with his friends, that had made an impression on him. They were pure kawaii horribleness, distilled family beach resort dessert air, the worst doughnuts you ever had. I am glad that he has Dave and me for dining companions now, and not his previous friends. I really shouldn’t have eaten the second doughnut.

The drive back was another elision-worthy travel experience. Traffic stop tedium on the way into Szczecin. Philipp and I were planning to pick up Dave from Avid and bring him back to the Ibis, but we watched and texted with him from across the street as he was walking faster than traffic.

That night we had dinner with a couple of Dave’s colleagues from Avid, at Mata Tomurska again. Their suggestion. It was nice to see Alicja again. Her coworker Maciej, a Szczecin native, came to dinner, too. Most of the people in that office are from somewhere else.

Hagia Sofia

In Sofia on Saturday, I went to the Boyana Church and the Museum of Socialist Art.

The Boyana Church is a World Heritage Site the size of a hotel room, but covered with fabulous murals, whose photos you can’t take, and whose post cards offered for sale do not include the best images. The paintings were commissioned by Sebastocrator Kaloyan in 1259. They are much in the medieval Byzantine style, but about a third of the faces are realistic and individuated in a way you seldom see in that school. Some people on Wikipedia say that these depictions represent the birth of the Renaissance. The other two thirds don’t represent that, including those of Jesus, and the Jesus paintings are the ones on the post cards at the gift shop. In those days, long before Monty Python, nobody seemed curious to depict in art what it must be like to be Jesus.

The picture of Mrs. Kaloyan does appear on post cards, and it’s one of the better ones. I think she looks a little like my cousin Meg. You would have no trouble spotting these people on the street. If the Sanhedrin had had anything besides medieval representations of Jesus to look at, they could have saved their money.

The Boyana Church has also in common with more modern pieces, such as Yayoi Kusama’s “Infinity Mirrors” show, that you can only enter eight people at a time and stay for ten minutes. The crowd between the ticket office and the front door piles up. GO EARLY.

The Museum of Socialist Art is a triumph of conflicted curating. Collected here are the propaganda pictures and videos — you must look at the videos — of the Bulgarian government from 1945-1990. It is, of course, schlock. But the artists were real artists, and they went to real art schools and they were not locked up in a stylistic box the way that, say, the Albanian artists were during the Hoxha era, as you can see on the dedicated floor of the National Art Gallery in Tirana. What you see here in Sofia, is a history of mid-20th century styles, as used in the unironic depiction of workers, partisan warriors, and politicians.

Imagine, real artists sculpting workers! Who did they think they were, Thomas Hart Benton?

Lenin, like Jesus, never gets shown with any internal structure.

The analogy of Lenin with Jesus goes far. There is a severe parallel between Orthodox religious art and Bulgarian socialist art, in that the socialist paintings concentrate heavily on scenes of betrayal, interrogation, trial, execution, and mothers mourning their fallen sons. There are not scenes of anyone sticking his hand into the wound in the side of a fallen soldier to see if it was him. The Communists would not have approved of doubt.

But, say “schlock”. The Socialist Art Museum is a branch of the National Gallery here in Sofia, and I feel that in another century, these paintings and statues will be displayed next to the — I want to say, “secular” — art of 20th century Bulgaria, and not seen as a side-trip into an aesthetic purgatory.

Then I went to the airport, and, blessed by Lenin and Jesus, did not get hassled by Ryanair, whose flight left on time, had the seat belt sign on about half the way, and arrived early in Berlin Schönefeld. My luck ran out in Schönefeld. The S-Bahn ticket machine wouldn’t take my credit card, I got hassled by a relatively scary hustler who would not let me alone, to where I actually felt I had to go back into the terminal out of fear for my personal safety, and I didn’t get to the hotel until after midnight. Dave met me at the last tram stop.

I must mention, that when I filled up the car with gas for the last time before turning it in, the gas jockey washed my windshield — disappeared before a chance to tip him. That doesn’t even happen in Oregon.

It’s Easter now, just freezing, and lightly snowing. The Germans, with their genius agglutinative Geist, call it “Schneeregen”.

Nessebar

Abandoned empty resorts are an icon, the shining example of which is that Jack Nicholson movie. Dave and I have on occasion been in such places, like here and here.

The morning proved that Nessebar is not deserted, but when I checked in to the St. Stefan Hotel, and walked around in the deepening dusk in the drizzle there was nobody on the streets and just the ghostly vox humana of the seagulls doing impressions of cats, to remind you of life amid the ruins of churches, castle walls, and souvenir antique shops covered in plastic sheets that won’t open until the summer, or at least until a sunny day.

I thought, the action must be all on the mainland. Not feeling up to a 200 meter causeway walk in the drizzle, when I’d already located the post office and some possible post card stores and in any case, ruins to see on Thursday, I went to sleep instead. All work and no play — OK, enough of that.

Although Nessebar is closed up tight, it will be opening for business soon. A walk through the town (I’ve been on every street three times, I’d say) revealed that every storefront is being polished up, roads and sidewalks smoothed and repaired, the sound of saws and screw guns on all sides, all being prepared for the summer season. But March 29, there is nothing. The post office opens at 8, if you already have leva. The one or two early adopter souvenir shops open between 10:30 and 11:00. I saw in midafternoon, a few open cafes. Other than that, just a few bewildered tourists surrounded by busy bricoleur locals.

I had to cross on the causeway to find an open bank.

I went to the museum and was fortunate to find one guide who would take me to one church. He said, that the season opened in April, when tourists came from Israel to gamble at the casinos. He didn’t know why.

The Church of St. Stefan — really a basilica, the guide assured me, because it had only aisles flanking the nave before the iconostasis and no cruciform elements — was built in the 10th century and decorated most recently in the 16th. Seven years ago, the murals were restored, but only those that were more than 50% legible. The guide (I never caught his name) was disdainful of the restoration at Ohrid, in which whole churches were being built sort of with the idea of what one there might have looked like before all the stones were removed to make fortresses and garden paths. It’s an approach. I got the impression he could have talked for hours about every element of every mural; but as he had left the gate unlocked, other tourists came in to look, and we never got too deeply into the hagiography. He did mention that the Annunciation was always the first mural you saw when you stepped into an Orthodox church, and in Bulgaria particularly, the image of Doubting Thomas touching the wound was popular. The Last Judgment was out in the narthex; it was reachable by the parishioners and Hell had mostly worn off, except for one badly drawn eagle and a sheep. Apparently the local custom was that animals also are judged. Heaven was left alone; serried ranks already bored with salvation. Nobody wanted to touch them for good luck.

Back inside, the mural painters had put their best work into Ignatius Theophoros devoured by lions, and the Massacre of the Innocents. It’s hard to read the labels. They are in some kind of Old Church Slavonic.

The guide had lots of opinions on everything. He said that Sofia was the worst part of Bulgaria. He said that Macedonia was also part of Bulgaria, but had been stolen by the Serbs. He said it wasn’t even mentioned as a country — isn’t that a Greek argument? Everybody wants a piece of Macedonia. If statues are any indication, it’s been long enough now that there is a distinct Macedonian identity.

Despite the absence of tourists, the prices on souvenirs are all set up for the big spenders. I only bought post cards from the museum, where they were half a lev. The bank gave me 1.55 leva to the dollar.

Dinner was at a restaurant, “Flagman”, recommended by the hotel desk lady for its particular specialty of being open. It was OK. Good, even. The most unusual thing was the Revox tape recorder on the bar, next to a Jameson Whiskey display bottle. The guy said it worked and maybe I could see it tomorrow.

But, on the morrow I drove back to Sofia, for a Saturday Night flight to Berlin.

On that drive, I made one stop, to see one of the better preserved Bulgarian dolmens, near Hlyabovo. It is given various names by different bloggers. It’s quite handsome, with three rooms, one of which evidently had a skeleton when it was unearthed. I didn’t go inside. You have to be very small and you can see everything (i.e. nothing) through the windows anyway.

Bulgaria has two fabulous freeways, one Sofia-Burgas and one Sofia-Istanbul. They meet past the town of Plovdiv. From Plovdiv to Sofia they are like a normal somewhat frayed freeway, with businesses and rest stops and stuff, but the freeways east of Plovdiv are brand new and have absolutely nothing on them, even exits. I was getting pretty nervous at around a quarter tank, and drove rather out of my way to Chirpan to fill up. Nobody there spoke English. Chirpan is pretty clearly the Real Bulgaria.

Drum Bun

After Skopje, I went on a driving vacation. A driving vacation means you are doing just that: driving. I got on a bus at 8:30 in the morning at the bus-train station in downtown Skopje. The drive over the pass was a winter wonderland. Trees laden with snow. This is foreshadowing. Snow looks much better through a bus window or indeed any window, except a windshield when your are behind the steering wheel. When we got to Sofia around 2 PM, I walked to the Sixt office one block south, and got in my rented Skoda.

Google Maps workers live in a walled palace. They have no idea how roads are in the real world.

  1. They don’t know about weather. The world has Snow! OMG! not like Mountain View. Google maps in Bulgaria made no time allowance for the fact it was snowing heavily on A81 to Montana, when telling me that was the quickest route north to Vidin. My human friends warned me but I don’t check messages while driving. I’m the only one in the Balkans who doesn’t.
  2. They don’t know about left turns. Google Maps seems to time left turns at about zero, when estimating driving times. This is bad enough in the States, during rush hour. In a town like Sofia, it significantly impacts routing decisions.
  3. They don’t know about Cyrillic characters. Seriously. And when the voice output comes to a syllable it can’t render, it omits it, leaving not even a speech disfluency. So if map direction algorithm outputs “Turn left on улица хан крум toward несебър стария град,”, the voice says: “Turn left ontoward”.
  4. They don’t map potholes.

Uber robot cars will be worse. I was thinking on the drive into Bucharest, the next day, how many times I would have been killed if I were in an autonomous vehicle, but realistically, I think, the answer is none.

An autonomous vehicle placed in Bucharest and given a command would put up an alert that said:

“Your request cannot be completed safely at this time.”

and that alert would stay on the screen forever, while the hubcaps and then the wheels and then the trim and the engine were stolen, leaving a robot car indistinguishable from all the other cars in Romania, which is good, because if it stood out, somebody would rob it.

The problem is one of driving style. In California, you assume that the other driver is not paying attention. In Romania, the other drivers are paying attention, and you can count on it. The guy in the cement truck who pulls out into the street without even looking away from his cell phone can be confident that the other people on the street will notice him and swerve. The other drivers might look like they are engaged in fisticuffs or video games or drinking, but by California standards they are as attentive as one must be at the gates of heaven in the Sufi tale. The drivers will honk to say hello to the cement truck. Or to say that time has not stopped. I haven’t figured out honking down in these parts. In India it’s straight up “I’m here, this is your audio cue.” I do that myself on Old La Honda.

So you can plan your left turn out of the gas station with the idea that, even though it’s a dead blind corner, the people whizzing out of it will dodge you with surprising precision. And honk.

The border leaving Romania on the bridge between Giurgiu and Ruse would shame an African failed state. There are a few possible paths through the villages of the surrounding area, but the point at which they all come together is a dirt road which has had a deep stream carved into by the rains, and every 18-wheeler from Tallinn to Trieste is trying to get to Istanbul and they have to Evel Knievel this gorge to do it. Also, Uber cars take note, the Romanian drivers have a lot of hand gestures indicating their precedence, not all of them unfriendly, but your software needs to be able to recognize the glint in their eyes as well as the gang signs.

I did get in trouble at the border. I had not bought a Gas Tax “Vignette”. I did not know that word before, or at least that meaning of that word. I will either get a fine in the mail or I paid a bribe to the border police. Or maybe both. She didn’t give me change for euro 20 the bridge toll. I will see what Sixt has to say, when I turn in the car. If you go driving in Romania, find some way to buy a “Vignette”, even if the kiosk at the incoming border (Calafat) is obviously closed and people are looking at it curiously and driving on. If I ever drive in Romania again I will figure it out. Holy cow, you can buy them online. Learn something new every day.

I should mention, there were human interactions in Romania. I had not seen our friends in Craiova last year, due to lack of time, and this year, I didn’t see my friends in Iasi. But I got to speak in English with Andrei in Craiova, who will be 8 years old next month, and I got to meet Lara in Bucharest, who is four months old. Andrei’s uncle, Cristi, took me to a small museum in a house in Craiova, the morning that I left for Bucharest. This is Museum Week in the schools, and every place was filled with mobs of very young schoolchildren on field trips. That was the only generically touristic thing I did in Romania. Visiting with friends was the goal.

On Wednesday, I drove off to Nessebar, Bulgaria, a Black Sea Resort with a World Heritage Site.

A Rainy Afternoon in Macedonia

I arrived at the Ljubljana airport around 10 I suppose. I had to go between two desks to pay for baggage. The plane left 20 minutes late, around 12:30. They had picked up all the passengers from a canceled flight to Pristina. Pristina was completely fogged in but that no longer matters. The flight out of Pristina was curious, and probably the shortest scheduled flight I’ve been on: we were over Skopje in 10 minutes, and the next 10 were spent positioning ourselves over the runway to land.

Filip was there to meet me. We picked up Goran and went to a cafe and sat and talked for what, four hours? I hope I’m not being mean, forcing all these people to speak English for so long. I met Goran and Filip and three other of their friends at Lake Ohrid in 2008: he was captioned “Boy with a small turtle” in this photo from that trip.  He is decidedly not a boy any more:  a couple of years after I met him, he decided he would become a bodybuilder. He has dedicated his life to that. His arms are bigger around than most of the legs in the world, at least before mere obesity became the defining body characteristic of poverty.

Traveling is Hard Work

Traveling of the tourism variety really is hard work, all that lugging suitcases and walking up tower staircases and transferring between underground stations.  But we extended this vacation to start a couple of weeks earlier so I could meet up with coworkers in Kiev and Szczecin.

I spent the rest of the day in Ljubljana doing lots of walking. I had a nice coffee, and elsewhere a greasy burek. Neither place would change my 50€ note, but their credit card machines both responded to my watch, which the first time they’d ever seen that. I went to the little Galerie Moderne instead of the massive National Gallery next door. Across from it I walked into a pretty Orthodox church. I walked back to the airbnb to get my bag out of it so that the next people could arrive, and took it to the train station which had lockers. (Another disadvantage of airbnb compared to a hotel.)  All the while, since the airport bus didn’t run late enough on Sundays, I was trying to get taxi companies to write back to me, making sure mine to the airport would actually be pre-arranged, after the experience with Ray’s earlier in the day.  I saw many picturesque things, including a wonderful portal in front of their parliament building featuring statues of naked Slovenians in all walks of life.  It was across from this strange pair of buildings that looked like other buildings had landed on top of them.  (One is a bank, the other is an energy organization.)

But the highlight of the walking around was deciding to kill a bit of time before dinner with a little walk in their little Tivoli park. I immediately discovered that there was an entire hill with a trail network just behind it, so I went into that as well. It’s much more extensive than is shown on either their or Google maps, but there was never an issue with getting lost. I got to Julija, the restaurant I wanted to go to, at the time I wanted to be there. But alas, it was fully booked. D’oh! I went to another restaurant nearby which had gotten so-so reviews. This meant that it was almost entirely empty. So empty they could easily accommodate an impromptu party of 13. The goulash was nice and spicy, but it was pretty second-rate overall, especially the canned beans in the salad.

My taxi driver was named Ottenheim, and was driving for income supplemental to his intended career of writing children’s books with his wife. I wished him the best of luck, and entered the airport, where my plane to Kiev, scheduled to leave around 11pm, actually took off around 12:30.

As with all my visits to Kiev except the first, I was greeted at the airport by a prearranged taxi. But this time it was about 4am. Poor Oleg, staying up that late. I slept late, and got into the office around 1pm. People there work late anyway, it wasn’t much out of the ordinary. They have to work late so they can be in meetings at 7pm which are at 9am for the people in California that they work with.

The week was very routine and businesslike, I got to work every day around 11 and left every day around 8. When I am in Kiev, I work harder than I do anywhere else. There are very few distractions, and I can just sit there and design or code or debug or whatever for hours on end. And it’s good to get to better know the other people that work on the same code, and to talk through issues with a few of them.

There are many restaurants near the hotel, and I ate at a Georgian one, a Turkish one, an Indian one, and one which serves only dried fish and craft beer. There seem to be more Georgian restaurants than ever — even the Turkish restaurant served khachapuri. I tried to go to a Crimean one (twice) but they close early and are very popular, and two attempts were thwarted. For breakfast, an Israeli chain “Aroma” had opened up, which had fresh OJ, so I went there three times. I like Greguar, the hotel I stay in, because there is a washing machine in my room. I can wash the clothes I was wearing as well as the ones I had worn. Kiev was quite cold — one morning it snowed — but all the indoor spaces are nicely toasty.

On the last day there was a party celebrating 10 years of cooperation between Avid and Global Logic. It was in downtown Kiev, the area we’d visited in 2009 as tourists. It was a bit loud and obnoxious — there was either a cover band playing or a reverby DJ speaking Ukrainian loudly the entire time. The food was sufficient but not inspired. But it was fun to talk to people, especially after they got a little drunk. On the 45-minute walk to the hotel, which passed by various Kiev attractions, I found a very cute little restaurant called The Life Of Wonderful People, and spent my remaining Ukrainian currency on a drink called a Penicillin. I want to go back there for breakfast next time.

I got up early, and Oleg took me back to the airport. My plane to Berlin left only half an hour late. It looked like I would be walking down a jetway to the plane attached to the gate, but no, we were routed onto a bus, and taken to another plane out on the tarmac.

More Slovenian Cuisine

Ljubljana is a charming place with more restaurants than tourist attractions. Like San Francisco. The first night, we ate at Gostilna Krpan, a fish restaurant whose menu is only for reading. When it is time to order, the waiter comes to your table and shows you, on a platter, the fish they have tonight, and talks about what other dishes are good, and gently discourages you from whatever you might have been planning to have unless it is in top form that night. Maybe the best approach is just to say “Feed me.” He also recommends the good wines from Slovenia. We did not have room for dessert, but small glasses of blueberry grappa and herbal digestif were offered after the bill was paid. The waiter turns out to be the son of the owner. His sister made the grappa. The best restaurants are the ones with drinks with the staff, afterwards.

The following day, we went to Gostilna na Gradu for lunch, one of the many perfect dining places around the world which use mostly local ingredients but oddly have no geography the way Sam’s Casa de Goulash would. Beef tongue with Parsnips started us off. There were chive sprouts on things, or maybe chia. The scampi in squid ink on corn looked like huitlacoche. Visual puns are always found at such places. So is Pinot Noir. It was not expensive, by the standards of the breed. Of course it was excellent; excellence is in the root class of such restaurants.

We walked around town after lunch. Came back via the south end of the castle, not much to see there. The temperature continued to hover slightly above freezing.

On Sunday morning, Dave tried using the “Hopin” app to get me a taxi to the Postaja (bus & train station). “Here’s hopin’ that some driver will accept our request.” None did. The bus is much cheaper than a taxi to the airport (4.10 vs. 25). There wasn’t a taxi to take us to the central station, though. We walked. I got on the bus. On Sunday, the bus schedule to the airport is much curtailed. Dave stayed behind, for a later flight to Kiev, where he will work for a week.