Monday, August 18, 2014

Please Curb Your Dog

I wish I knew what the lower sign once said.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Book of the Month

Look at the bottom of this! It's for August, but I was traveling when this came out. 

Unexpected, but kind of awesome. 

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Busy Day in Barcelona

Noooo! My shopping expeditions in Barcelona were a bust.

The caganers were of a terrible quality this time. If I'm honest, they were last time too, but I bought some out of habit. I suspect that the popularity with tourists has caused a kind of caganer gold-rush, turning out um, shitty caganers as quickly as possible. I'm backing out of caganer collecting except when I see high-quality ones from now on.

Then the shop with the Bionic sign above it, which never really was called Bionic but I suppose it's to do with commercial changes you can make in the Gothic quarter, is closed for good now. I bought clothes I wore almost every day in Kuwait here at this shop, when I was en route and desperate for something with long sleeves that was too frumpy-modest. 

I could buy clothes on Etsy from the couple that ran the shop now. But it's not the same without trying them on. 

Plus one of my other go-tos, On Land, was closed for summer vacation. 

And Tomo II, where I'd picked up a lot of inexpensive shirts over the year, was closed permanently as well. That one at least had a second branch near the train station, but I didn't find anything there I wanted to buy. 

One new addition was Fete again has a store in town, so that's a bonus. I used to get their stuff all the time until their shop closed some years back. 

I didn't buy much, and what I did buy from Fete and Anna Povo is a little too big, and I keep believing I'll have the time to take the shirt in. I made a special trip (with my T10 metro card) up to the Skunkfunk Outlet, but even the stuff I've bought at home from them never fit me quite right. 

I don't know what it is about Barcelona that keeps me coming back. I don't know anyone there and staying in the tourist area never brings me great luck with finding food. I realize Barcelona is a great food city, but I don't eat seafood at all, and I hate going into crowded places by myself. I had a fabulous, perfect lunch at a little cafe, which is what I gravitate to when I travel rather than proper restaurants. I'm just not a gourmet foodie in any way, because I have too many dietary restrictions, some legit and some self-imposed. Normally, I'd pick up fresh food at the open-air market, but not for a short stay. 

Staying in the beachside made eating trickier due to the massive crowds and shocking prices. But it was only one day, and I was packing a lot in, so the last thing I wanted to think about was researching good food in suitable atmospheres. I tried loading up Foursquare a few times for reviews, but in the end, just went by the kebab shop on my way back to my room. 

(yes, yes, I know, what a crime against Barcelona to not try this and that and good god, please don't give me hell. I have shit to do. I can't be obsessing for half a day about where to eat dinner. Reminder: this is my constant life, not a my once-in-a-lifetime fantasy holiday.)

My old Raval building has been renovated
I was pretty beat after my day of crisscrossing Barcelona in search of new clothes and caganers (and I stopped at the comic book store where I was a bit shocked by the sneering High Fidelity-esque brusque "assistance" I got--I wonder if they'd have been nicer if I weren't female and middle-aged. Did I come off as someone's mother looking for something I had no clue about? I won't be going back to that comic book store.) 

I took my chicken kebab back to my room, where I got back to work on the DC comic books I'm overseeing for the mass market until I couldn't see straight, then collapsed into bed. I'd have to get up before too long. 

The next morning, I ignored the gross processed-food breakfast basket and just ate the banana and peach I'd picked up. I headed out at the crack of dawn to the Barceloneta metro, zipped up to Plaza Catalunya, and caught the airport bus. At the terminal, I checked in, went through security, and happily immersed myself in a latte at Costa Coffee. Finally, I boarded a plane for the trip to Copenhagen, where I'd soon learn my United pass would NOT get me into the lounge as I'd expected it to. Instead, I found an outlet by a window, and worked for hours on editing a prose novel for Marvel. A really nice old man sat next to me for a while, and he complimented my work ethic when he left. That made me feel pretty good.

Eight hours later, I disembarked at Newark, caught the monorail to NJTransit to Newark Penn, crossed the platform to the PATH for the short trip to Grove Street, stopped by the all-night deli for a banana, an apple, and a little container of milk so I could have breakfast in my own apartment, then walked home. 

And I stood there at the steps of my building for a minute. And I thought.

Four flights to go, and completely out of willpower and strength. 

This is the always a tough moment. Challenging after every trip. 

I keyed open the door and took the steps, one at a time.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

A Dorm in Barceloneta

My flight to from Sofia to Bulgaria was half an hour late, and by the time I got to the dorm room I'd booked in Barceloneta, it was already 8:30 p.m.

This was my first experiment with the dorm room. It was okay. The price was right at $130 for two nights, including private bath, a/c, wifi, and a desk. Oh, and breakfast, but it was a basket of packaged, er, treats left in the fridge. So an envelop of instant coffee, a packaged croissant, a sugary yogurt, some bread and processed cheese. Eww. And unfortunately, the a/c dropped water all over the closet, so that limited my a/c use, and the window was unscreened, so I didn't want to have it open at night when I had a light on.

The real issue with the room was the location. It isn't far from Born, but it's a little too far for easy convenience. The restaurants in Barceloneta are expensive and touristy, mostly for the throngs of beachgoers. I ended up at a kebab house the first night.

But for the price in Europe in August, I was doing all right. 

Made for Walking

I may have gotten a little carried away with the shoe thing.

Lots of tourists get taxis and people who live abroad for work often get vehicles or drivers. I rely on these and the bus.

I didn't want to leave the Sofia hotel maid with the problem of figuring out how to dispose of my old shoes, so I carried them along when I checked out.

I tossed them into the dumpster at the end of the block, then headed to the metro to head to the airport bus stop.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Sofia Walk

I hurried down to the meeting place for the free Sofia walking tour.

These free tours are an interesting phenomenon in lots of European cities. The idea is, I guess, that people work for tips. Or maybe it's to hone certain skills. Certainly, my guide was a historian.

There were many guides and a tremendous number of people, so they were all split up. I went with the last one who picked up the stragglers (that's me).

He walked us around the Sofia historic district, and eventually, I left him and headed to the archeology museum, then took a long walk over to the university.

Tomorrow I'd be starting my homestretch—that is, I'd be off to Barcelona, en route back home.

Sunday, August 10, 2014


I saw a poster for this on the Sofia metro.

Looks great! Maybe I should go see it.

Yes, I immediately sent this to Keith Giffen.

Sofia Afternoon

The 0900 bus pulled away from Hotel Etar and out of Veliko Tărnovo. I'll be in Sofia by lunchtime, I thought.

That turned out to be a slightly late lunch, as I'd foolishly booked the bus that stopped by the Sofia airport first. This took a bit longer than I expected it to, because the roads leading up to the airport are in various states of disrepair. There seemed to be construction going on, so the bus driver eased the bus down the bumpy road with a bit of care.

Someone on the bus behind me had teeth that stunk of powerful rot. I'd noticed this on some trains too, but was in no position to guess if this was common among older people here or just plain bad luck for me. Certainly, there was more smoking in this part of the world than at home, but again, all I could do was make jokes, not assess with any real evidence if this was a societal issue or not.

I did make a snarky joke about it on Facebook, and that resulted in a tirade from an NGO worker (one with subordinates, paid lodging, paid vehicle or driver...none of which you get on the bus) who finds me superficial and accused me of not staying anywhere long enough to get to know a culture. Which...I can't argue with that on a two-week vacation. It's not remotely the same as renting an apartment and staying somewhere. Deep cultural understanding is not even on my agenda. My point here was to sightsee like the tourist I am. You can't possibly believe you'll develop deep insights in a few days of snapping photos of castles.

At least, I don't.

I know this much. The longer I stay somewhere, the more I learn to acknowledge my deep level of ignorance of a culture. Breezing through, I tend to think I've learned a few tidbits. Staying somewhere longer is a great experience, but unless you leave that situation understanding how much more there is to learn, you've actually learned nothing about the level of complexity of a culture. In Kuwait or Cairo, for example, I may know more than someone who hasn't lived there, but I would be foolish or vain to believe I'd done more than break off the tip and peek inside. Even people I know who have lived in other cultures for years speak of how much they have to learn.

And I know this. Being from another culture doesn't make you immune to jokes. Rotting teeth are not beautiful simply because I am traveling. They stink everywhere.

Being called superficial is not exactly pleasing, I admit. But I openly acknowledge a certain heavy-duty psychological armor goes on the second I get a passport stamp, the moment I head off alone in the unknown with zero resources save US-passport-privilege and the problem-solving abilities I carry along in my own brain. I am not going to be airlifted out by a distant company at the first whiff of danger. I don't have a fixer or a driver or a company-sponsored SUV. I don't have subordinates to enforce my dubious democratic values on, or a paycheck that reinforces my belief that I have something to offer. I'm a tourist, subject to the whims of fate and bus schedules and bad plumbing. Nothing more, now that I work and live stateside and get the common two weeks a year off work.

I was packing a lot into this two weeks. Two nights in London, the convention in Birmingham, two nights in Budapest, four nights in Romania, four nights in Bulgaria, and then two in Barcelona. It's too bad I can't get frequent-ass miles for the time I spend on buses and trains.

When my coach pulled into the Sofia bus station, I rolled off the bus and wandered down the block, navigating by iPhone to Favorit Hotel. It was completely and utterly pleasant, the best hotel I'd seen during my whole trip, including the Radisson in Budapest and the Hilton in London. I devoured some almonds and fizzy water from the mini-bar (later I'd learn I'd paid $9 for that), rested a bit, then headed down the block to acquire a banana and take the newish, gleaming metro to the center.

I walked along a grand boulevard to Alexander Nevsky Church, went in and played tourist for a while, until it was late and I was exhausted, and I headed back to my room. I had plenty of work to do, as even though this was holiday, the work never ends. I'd do some more touristing in the a.m.

Saturday, August 09, 2014

Tsarevets Fortress

I stopped in my hotel for the hottest part of the day, then headed up to the fortress after four.

Tsarevets Fortress is the grand sight I'd spotted from the taxi on my arrival in town the previous night. It's the most dramatic historic spot in Veliko Tarnovo, this town of three hills.

The fortress itself was imposing, its giant walls rising dramatically above the ridge, and I wandered for almost two hours. But even more incredible was the view of the lush, green valley, the hills rising and falling above it.

I'm not saying I'm ready to drop everything and move to Bulgaria, but what a view.

An Unexpected Treat

I chose a random restaurant in Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria, and spotted this on the menu.

Wolf bits? What does this mean? 

I'll never know. 

Veliko Tarnovo

The hotel breakfast was nothing special, I knew, from reading reviews on TripAdvisor. And so when I encountered packaged bread, cheese, and salami along with pod coffee, I was actually pleasantly surprised.

My laziness stopped me from wandering off to look for somewhere else that was open. I had abandoned my "no bread" style of eating a few days ago. It was just too hard on the road.

I'm not sure how I can ever travel the way I used to if I don't eat bread. Everything is bread bread bread except pasta which is also's is just energy and sugar, which I suppose has its place in travel. But it's ultimately not the best idea to eat sugar and energy all the time. Except when you're eating a form of potato. That's a also big on the road. It makes me miss camping with a car and a stove, or being on the road in Thailand, where you get all kinds of interesting meals even at the crummiest bus stopover.

I ate the Lucky Hotel breakfast, then headed out to find enough coffee to stop the incoming caffeine-withdrawal headache. I walked away from the fortress and around the big U, a road on a ridge around a river and island below. I picked a restaurant and went in to get a latte.


What a view. Veliko Tarnovo is kind of out of the way of my regular orbit, but it sure has great views.

Feeling a bit better after my coffee, I headed to tourist info, which wasn't so info-y at all, then found the bus station to buy my onward ticket to Sofia. There I learned about the buses that leave from the center of town. Great! That meant I could just walk from the hotel to the bus tomorrow instead of looking for a taxi. I got my ticket for 0900 and went to visit the town.

I'd thought about stopping in Bucharest and spending only an evening and a morning here. I didn't know if that was the right choice, having not seen Bucharest at all, but this was such a nice place it was hard not to jump to conclusions.

Friday, August 08, 2014

On to Bulgaria

The train pulled into Gorna Oryahovitsa, Bulgaria shortly after 6 P.M. I dragged my bag along behind me off the train and onto the platform, down the stairs, under the tracks, and up the other stairs into the station. I got Bulgarian money from the ATM, found the toilets, and then, for a while, I waited for the bus to Veliko Tarnovo to fill up and leave. I got bored eventually and once I realized I'd still need a taxi from the bus stop once I got there, I hired a taxi to take me the 12 km or so instead.

The driver was marvelous. He wanted to point out the highlights as we drove, and I was grateful for this, but of course, I couldn't speak a word of Bulgarian. He pointed and talked to me, and I nodded and cooed appreciatively. I had no idea what he was saying but his enthusiasm was obvious.

We went down a mountain and then up a hill and suddenly, the sun was brilliantly lighting up the walls of the fortress of Veliko Tarnovo.

"Whoa..." I said. The driver smiled. He didn't need to speak to me in a common language. The light on the fortress walls needed no translation.

I checked into Lucky Hotel, walked down the road to a restaurant, and later that evening, back at my hotel, I was able to see a part of the light show on the fortress.

What a nice town this was.

National Pride

I waved down a taxi to the Brașov train station in the morning.


The driver looked at me and tilted his head.

"Gare? Gar-ah? Gar-uh? Um...choo-choo!"

"Ah, gara," he said with a laugh, and we were off.

I was pretty grumpy from lack of caffeine, but all the train station offered was vending machine coffee and Nescafe. grump...grump...grump.

But the train was nice and I was in Bucharest in a few hours. I tried to get Bulgarian money in the Bucharest train station but no Bulgarian currency was to be had, so I changed the last of my Romanian money to euros and boarded the train to Bulgaria. I'd thought about staying a night in Bucharest and heading on by the 10:30 minivan in the morning, and I'd decided to just get the travel over with in one day. I think the minivan would have been vastly more efficient. It goes to Russe, where you hop on a bus to Veliko Tarnovo. And the train ended up taking an excruciatingly long time.

The train from Bucharest to Russe had only two cars. My seat was in a filthy old sleeping compartment.

"That's cozy." I said.

 Two forlorn British backpackers were there too. "That's what we said."

 I found a conductor and switched cars to a much better one, a traditional car of rows. I got a window seat. Almost no one else was in the car.

"Why is this car so much nicer?" I asked the conductor.

 "It is Bulgarian. The other is Romanian." He bristled with pride.

Thursday, August 07, 2014

Looking at Castles

I went on a tour of Peles Castle, Bran Castle, and Rasnov Fortress. These and medieval villages were the reason I'd come to this part of the world, to have a whirlwind trip through Romania and Bulgaria before going back home to work long hours until January.

But this is going to be a hard day to report on without it sounding worse than it actually was. I mean, it wasn't great, but I ended up in a situation I didn't care for and couldn't find a way out.

I had paid the night before at the travel agent's office. The trip had a guaranteed departure for 37 euros a person. That seemed well worth the price to me, as while getting to Bran seemed easy on the bus, I couldn't figure out how to get to Peles without a private vehicle.

But when I showed up at the meeting point in the town square, sipping the latte I'd just picked up, I learned I was the only client.

That sounded awkward to me. Plus, the price is double if only one person shows.

"But it's guaranteed," I sputtered.

The guide made a few phone calls and in the end, they decided to honor the price. I offered several times to go on the bus. "Just tell me how." I've been on a lot of experiences where I'm the only client, and I don't enjoy the pressure at all. The guide feels like he has to entertain your constantly, you feel like you have to be in rapt attention, and it's just awkward.

And it was. He talked a lot about history, managing to make sweeping generalizations based on how groups of people had performing in the past, and showed me a book where an Orthodox saint had supposedly predicted mobile phones, space shuttles, and now was predicting a great disaster. I was pretty uncomfortable at this point, as you might imagine. I am usually able to deflect conversations in ways, but this one just kind of had me going "Huh. You think so."

So that was awkward and endlessly long. But that wasn't the only fun. Also, Peles Castle had an insane entrance approach. You wait in line, buy your ticket (the regular one would have been fine but the guide told me the extended was much better), then you crowd around the door, which is both entrance and exit. And no one lines up and no one behaves with civility. You just push your way in when you hear your language tour called. And if someone is coming out, you push harder.

That was awful, and I cut out early from the extended tour. The guide was waiting for me back at the car.

By the time we got to Bran, I said "I can go in by myself." But here, he wanted to show me around. The castle itself was crowded, very much so. The fortress was easier, but I had lost the will to care by then.

I'm not saying I regret going to Romania. Only that sometimes, the reason you choose a destination doesn't end up being the reason you are glad to be there. I loved the medieval villages, just wandering in them. But the whole castle day was kind of a bust.

I was thrilled when we got back to town. I overtipped, which given I felt uncomfortable with the whole day, annoyed me about myself. Why did I do that? Guilt, I suppose, and knowing that he'd make more with a bigger group.

I picked up my laundry from the place I'd dropped it off the day before and went back out to wander the town. Brasov really was charming, at least.

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

On to Brasov

The train from Sighișoara to Brașov was 40 minutes late, and I was weary from my night on the train and three-hour tour of the medieval village of Sighișoara.

"Maybe I should have returned to Sighișoara as a day trip from Brașov," I thought. But no, this had been fine. Now I just needed to get to Brașov, check into my hotel, and rest for a bit.

The train was pleasant and empty for a while, but eventually it filled up and chugged on through Transylvania. When we pulled into Brașov, I bought my onward ticket for two days later, then went to the taxi rank.

The guesthouse, Casa Albert, had sent a note before I'd arrived.

"As you exit the train station, you can see the taxis on the right-hand side. (100 m) Approx. cost of fair to city center - 3 euro. We recommend this due to past events when independent taxi drivers overcharged our guests. If you don't want to overpay, do not accept offers from drivers that approach you."

I approached the first taxi in the rank and asked how much to my hotel.

"70," the driver said firmly. What? That's $21, not 3 euros.

"No." This is why I'd rather take a bus.

The next taxi driver said "meter," and motioned to his meter. Great. It was about $5 now.

I was going to Casa Albert, a guesthouse in the pedestrianized zone. I checked in, left my bags, and hurried out to wander the old city.

I could barely move by now, but I wasn't going to let that stop me. I stopped in at a coffee shop for a big latte that kept me going long enough to see trumpeters come out of the building in the center of the main square, play their horns, and vanish back into the building.

I'd planned on going on a walking tour at six, but I didn't have any attention span left. Instead, I stopped by a travel agency and bought a voucher for a trip to see some castles tomorrow.

And then, finally, after a day of touring Budapest, a night on the train, and a day of touring Transylvania, went to sleep.

Vlad's Hometown

I crossed the bridge over the Târnava Mare River, and looked for steps up the cliff to the medieval old town of Sighișoara, Romania. I'd boarded the train in Budapest and disembarked in the morning mist in the Transylvanian hometown of Vlad Tepes III, better known in pop culture as Vlad the Impaler, son of Vlad Dracul.

Just after eight, I climbed up to the town and followed a cobblestoned path around the clock tower, past the spot where Vlad was born, and entered a square called Piata Cetatii.

The cobblestones were surrounded by buildings in greens, pinks, and golds. The morning was chilly, and I pulled on the pathetic excuse for a sweater I'd worn on the plane. It's really just a crocheted shawl, not very useful, but better than nothing.
I sat down at the only cafe that was already open, one attached to a guesthouse, and ordered an omelet and coffee. I had plenty of time. The old town is small, quaint, and I didn't have to be back at the train station for three hours.

After breakfast, I followed the old village fortified walls around the outskirts of town. You can't exactly follow them completely, as there are houses and buildings in the way, but I was able to walk near them, stopping in at lookout towers and gates as I went. An old man with a cap and a cane stopped under one gate to greet and old woman wearing a headscarf and carrying a small sack of groceries. These were the people who had lived through massive changes during their lifetimes. I imagine they were in their eighties, which would mean they grew up during the second war, then lived under the Soviets, and finally saw that collapse in 1989.

I reached the highest point in town via a long covered staircase up a hill. Phew. That took a while. It was like having to work at getting your good view.

Finally, I was back at my starting point. I gazed up at the starting point, then started my hike back to the train station. Next stop: Brasov.

Morning in Sighișoara

The train pulled in late to Sighisoara, right after the mist burned off the morning.

I approached the train information booth. "Is there a place I can leave my bag?"

"Da. Here." She motioned inside her booth.

I left my bag, bought an onward ticket for a later train, and wandered off, looking for a route to the old town.

I got my first glance.


By Train to Transylvania

I tugged my bag up the train steps and into the sleeper carriage in the Budapest railway station. It was empty save for me. But there were six seats.

"I wonder who will join me."

I found out shortly, when a family of five Germans trundled in. The little kids were adorable and squeaky, and of course a family is preferable to many options.

It wasn't long before it all became annoying. Everyone was stripping down for bed and tossing their clothes on the floor. I climbed up to my top bunk and huddled, sweating in the stifling heat. Mutti had covered the vents with cushions because she'd been cold.

The night was long and restless, as the train stopped and started across the frontier.

Knock knock. "Hungarian border police!" Okay, okay. We'd all show our travel documents and pretend to sleep for half an hour, and then the next knock. "Romanian border! Passports!"

At six in the morning, I climbed carefully down from my perch to the pile of clothing below. I gently moved aside a stuffed shark so I could pull my luggage out. I had to dig for my shoes, by which time I'd quit trying to be quiet. If the family didn't want me to make noise, maybe they shouldn't have scattered their crap all over the floor.

I left the cabin and went to stand by the door. My stop—Sighasoara, Transylvania—was next.