After being in Ukraine, flying to London was like a Disney movie come to life. I thought a pair of robins would come and tie ribbons in my hair and the trees would start singing. After being in the wintery cold, gray, depressing bits of Eastern Europe, England was fully into spring, with lush green grass and fragrant tree blossoms. A three day whirlwind through London seemed too fast for all of its glory, but luckily, we seemed to cover most of the “biggies.”
Watched the changing of the guards at Buckingham Palace. Well, not really. After only seeing four guards change, we saw a sign stating there was “No changing of the guards” that day. The palace itself was nice, but not quite as grand as I had imagined it. The surrounding gardens were lovely, though, full of beautiful flowers and people lounging around eating lunch and enjoying the perfect weather. Whilst on our stroll, we passed a camera crew and…could it be? Will and Kate, weeks before the big nuptials? Well, certainly not, but some rather convincing impersonators being filmed for something or other.
From there we made a quick stop in the National Gallery, mostly to see the impressionist works they housed there. Of course we saw Big Ben (which was much more impressive than I had imagined), Houses of Parliament, and the Westminster Abbey. We saw none of the interiors, for they were much too expensive! If I haven’t mentioned it yet, London is very pricey.
Walking across the River Thames, we saw a string of bridges, as well as the giant London Eye (which was a mere $30 per person, we skipped that as well). What we unexpectedly came upon next was an overwhelming mix of street performers, that had us guessing who we’d see next: Michael Jackson, Charlie Chaplin, Mickey and Donald, crazy lizard man, Darth Vadar, and more! It was quite hilarious and entertaining. We ended the evening watching a free jazz concert at the National Theater before calling it a night.
The day began by indulging my inner Harry Potter nerd-dom by visiting King’s Cross train station, where we sought out Platform 9¾. We couldn’t find it at first, then as we approached a worker to ask for help, we noticed he was singing “Harry Potter” under his breath. Apparently other people have trouble finding it as well. When we got to the infamous wall where Harry ploughs through to make his way to Hogwarts, we were amused to find no children, only other adults like ourselves. Even though the wall was pretty cheesy, we did our obligatory poses and took photos.
Then we indulged Guy’s inner Sherlock Holmes nerd-dom by visiting 221 Baker’s Street, where there was a museum and gift store selling everything Sherlock related. Then off to the Tower of London, where all of the crown jewels are held. No jewels were beheld by us, as we were going to be meeting up with friends shortly, and we wanted to glimpse the great St. Paul’s Cathedral before meeting them on the Millenium Bridge. We met Stan and Sarah back in Bolivia at the crazy monkey park, which was towards the beginning of our trip, and thought it was quite fitting to see them again right at the end of our journey. It was fantastic seeing them again, as we both enjoy both of them so much! We went to grab some drinks and some German food, where we were joined by another pair of their friends, who were also lots of fun. It was great to be able to talk to Sarah and Stan about being home after such a long trip (all of the realizations and adjustments), as they had recently returned from their 6 month trip around the world. What a fun night. I really hope we are able to join up with them again someday.
Our final day in England, and our final day of the trip. We spent the day browsing stores in the Soho area, eating a cheap version of “Proper tea” (which left much to be desired), and a very overwhelming stop at Harrods, the most comprehensive store that exists in London. World famous, it has many high-end departments, including 32 restaurants, a champagne and caviar bar and upscale pet salon. Jewels, clothes, furniture, stuffed animals...anything you want to buy, you can find here. Even a $3,100 giant bear. Besides being overwhelmed by the incredible amount of goods, the swarms of people there drove us out and left me practically hyperventilating!
Just across the street was Hyde Park, where we caught our breath and took in our last "visions" of London. I really enjoyed our brief time there and all of the beautiful sights we saw. It really sunk in at that point that we were really almost home and the trip was quickly coming to a close. The following morning showed up very quickly, and soon we were on "the tube" (underground railway) and at the airport, ready to board our 8 hour flight to Chicago.
The Colors of Ukraine
During this trip, I've felt very powerfully that all people around the world are more similar than different, and then I arrived in Ukraine. Really, I'm kidding...mostly.
After our quite somber time in Krakow, Poland, I was feeling a bit depressed, and hoping that going to Ukraine would be a bit of a pick-me-up. Not entirely the case. We began in the beautiful city of Lviv, (on the western edge of the country) which is quite a bit more "European" than the rest of the country. There were elements, definitely, that reminded me of Prague, with beautiful buildings and churches. Truly, we didn't visit a single one, and instead climbed 400 stairs of a clock tower to take in the city view from atop. I hate to sound jaded, but one can only look at so many beautiful buildings and churches. Instead, I began to take in the culture, and the people around us. Well, I didn't really decide, so much as have no choice, since its pretty much impossible to ignore!
Take for example, Sunday afternoon in the main square. We spot someone selling balloons, then a young woman selling something in a renaissance outfit. I walk closer to her to get a look at what I realize are giant turkey-shaped lollipops, as I practically get run over by a small boy driving a small plastic car. Then I realize they are everywhere (the cars, not lollipops). And child-sized segways. And ponies. It was a chaotic, colorful dream of any child.
Then I noticed the mothers chasing the children. They were not donning "mom clothes." They all were wearing 6 inch heels (ok, maybe not ALL of them were 6 inch but at least 4), which created a chorus of horse-like "clops" across the concrete. And this is where I began to learn about Ukranian women. If its not sheer, tight, sparkly, or be-dazzled, its not to be found on (most) women. I am pretty sure there is an unspoken contest of who can wear the most, um, extravagent boots. Shiny red, zebra, furry, gold, stone-washed denim, and sparkly were all spotted by moi, and all were just your normal, everyday wear. Beyond that, I do believe its illegal to retain your natural haircolor, as platinum, raspberry, fire-y orange, and black were all common. The grandmas even sport the raspberry and lavendar variety. My worn-out hiking boots and plain brown hair were beyond out of place, needless to say.
After taking a rather sad horse-drawn carriage ride around the center with our disinterested driver, we were out of "fun land."
Back on the Train...
As we were approaching the end of our world of train rides across Eastern Europe, I thought we had gotten through rather nicely without too much drama (unlike our 3-day extravaganza in Africa). With only two more to go, I thought we were set. Then we got on our train from Lviv to go to Simferopol, a 24 hour gig. It started out well enough, we had our own compartment for about 2 hours, and I was hopeful we may even get through without anyone else overnight! Then hopped on our new friends, Victor and Nikolai. Construction workers on their way to a southern city in Ukraine, they were eager to chat with us and share their goods with us as well. Victor spoke Ukranian and Nikolai actually knew a little English since he lived in Canada for 6 years. They were very friendly and nice enough, but all I could think was "I'm sharing a compartment with 4 boys, and the walls are closing in on me."
After a little conversation, out came the food. As we learned from our Ukranian train companions in Africa, Ukranians are incredibly generous people and want to share everything they have. So out came the chicken, hard boiled eggs, and bread spread with deer liver pate (which admittedly was pretty tasty) and salo, which is simply cured pig fat. Its white and pretty flavorless, and frankly, its just a slab of fat. I don't need any more fat in my diet, especially so blatantly! Then came out the liquor. I could feel my anxiety levels rise. Guy had warned me of the infamous Ukranian drinking, and I was worried where this all was headed. They explained that it was homemade vodka, and of course we all had to have a shot of it to cheers (За здоровя) our time together. I learned quickly that no means yes (no matter how firmly you mean it) to Ukrainians when it comes to food and drink. There is NO refusing. So after Victor did a couple of rounds I became as belligerent as I could politely muster in front of a complete stranger and told him I was finished. I am not about to match my drinking pace with a 55 year old seasoned alcoholic!
As much as I envisioned our compartment turning into a party hall as the evening progressed (it was only 2 in the afternoon at this point), Victor and Nikolai were fairly mellow in their countinued drinking, and rather than getting rowdy, they simply got tired. And snored. Louder than I've ever heard anyone snore. Me and three snorning men? I would never get any sleep! But luckily I think they slept things off before bedtime, and I was miraculously able to get a GOOD night's sleep. Oh, how differently things all could have gone...
In the Circus
After we safely reached our destination of Simferopol the next morning, we quickly got settled into our rented apartment in town. It was clean, small place, but it was all ours! I think I haven't mentioned yet that a big part of traveling to different places throughout Ukraine is due to the fact that Guy spent some time there for the Peace Corp. He was stationed (is that the right word? It sounds a bit militant...) in Simferopol for a few months where he taught English to teenage students. We met his teaching counterpart, Olga, for dinner, and although she wore flat boots, she didn't disappoint my expectations - a scorpion belt buckle and shimmery jacket made appearances that night. She was very nice and kindly spoke English for our benefit the whole evening. In another true typically Ukranian move, she asked blunt questions. I was warned of this as well. "How much money do you make?" - is apparently a common question asked, but it didn't come out that night. What did come out is "Why did you get divorced?" Nothing like sharing personal details with a complete stranger. It certainly isn't meant to be rude or anything, its just one of those glaring cultural things.
After our dinner (where I "enjoyed" a lettuce-less caesar salad of chicken, mayo and cheese) we headed outside to a fairly common scene - people drinking on the street, playing music - in this case, a guitar. Olga recognized a colleague of hers, so we joined them while the "Amerikanitzi" were honored with a badly slurred and barely audible (this man didn't speak a word of English) rendition of none other than "Blue Suede Shoes" (It sounded more like Blue Sway Show).
We did spend one day actually sight-seeing, with a day trip to the near-by town of Yalta, where we saw a charming sea-side mini-castle, and the Livadia Palace ( The Yalta Conference was held there in 1945). Both interesting, but seeing that my sight-seeing tolerance is rapidly declining, I won't go into detail.
On to the circus.
I don't like the circus at home. The circus in Ukraine is even freakier. Guy wanted to go, and since I was growing tired of typical sight-seeing venues, I obliged. While there were certainly times of talent and entertainment, there were equally times of hilarity (when they weren't intending to be) and oddity. One of those times included a clown pointing a fake gun (although it didn't look THAT fake) at a dog, then at a child in the audience, then at his own head!!! So weird. Then it was serious bum-out time for me when the dressed up bear and monkey came out with their muzzles on. Please leave the wild animals out of the circus, people.
First Class and More Serious Things
From Simferopol we headed north to the capital of Ukraine, Kyiv. The most wonderful thing in the world happened. Guy went to buy train tickets, and came back with First Class tickets. It was a fluke. He had not intended on buying them, but they were all that was left. While he sulked, trying to get over the cost, I jumped up and down in excitement. It was GLORIOUS. Only two beds, down pillows, a TV screen (who cared that the only channel was in Russian and we didn't watch it ) and everything looked clean and new. Heaven.
In Kyiv, we walked around the city center, along the river, visited the craft market, looked at a couple beautiful gold-domed churches and visited two museums: the Chernobyl Museum, and the Great Famine Museum. In light of the recent events in Japan, it was even more interesting to learn about the nuclear accident that occurred on April 26, 1986 at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant.
Perhaps lesser known (at least to me) was the "Great Famine" or "Famine-Genocide" of Ukraine from 1932-1933, where millions of people died due to starvation caused by terrible political/economic policies. Both exhibits were very eye opening, and very sad.
From our stay in Kyiv, we headed to the small town of Kozelets (population 8,000, about an hour out of Kyiv), where we would visit the other city Guy was in during his Peace Corp training. Andrei and Valentina were Guy's "Host Parents" during his 3-month stay, and they became very close. They were looking out their window, waiting for us as we walked down the road to their house, and excitedly met us, grabbing Guy's face by the beard and laughing (not many men have beards or long hair here). They were darling, wonderful people, and I quickly learned why Guy is so fond of them. They have a simple, cute house where they grow much of their own food, make their own wine, have chickens, a cat and a dog, Valentina hand washes everything in their bathtub and makes everything from scratch. They have no car, but recently acquired a DVD player, so we were able to share some of our trip photos with them. Andrei has a mouth FULL of silver, and he's full of mischief like any other "grandpa" of that generation is. He really was into his role of over-feeding me, and practiced his remedy of mole-removal on me and Guy by placing a potato half on our faces. We have been instructed to continue this 4 more times at home...and our moles will be gone. He swears by it. They were so generous to us, and even had the neighbors over for a party one afternoon. They have been married for 52 years and are so cute and hilarious together. My favorite moment was this morning when they both insisted my hair was too damp for me to go outside in the cold. They found their 20 year old hair dryer (which was about 4 inches long with no handle) and the two of them hovered over me drying my hair before we left. It was sad to leave from the bus station today, but staying with them was by far the highlight of my time in Ukraine.
That's the only word that comes to mind in recalling my experience of visiting the infamous concentration camp that is Auschwitz. Upon planning this trip almost a year ago, I remember thinking about the possibility of visiting this place, and the anxiety it brought up for me even then. I had been anticipating this day once we entered Eastern Europe, and finally, yesterday, it arrived. Terrified that fear and repulsion would overtake me once we entered the gates, I tentatively made my way to meet our English tour guide.
The words "Arbeit Macht Frei" (Work Makes You Free) on the gate framed the many brick buildings, where we wandered through artifacts, displays, and sites of horror. Double electrified-barbed wire fences lined the perimeter of the grounds. We witnessed the terrible living conditions of the slaves...too-crowded rooms, small prison cells, no comforts...let alone liveable situations.
Then came the piles and piles and piles of articles taken from the Jews upon their arrival to the death camp. Eye glasses, artificial limbs, hair brushes, clothes and luggage and kitchenware...for many were told that they were simply being moved to a new place...not that they would be killed upon arrival. When we passed the tiny clothes of babies and shoes of children, I could not bear it any longer and was overcome with tears.
I was also overwhelmed with emotion walking through the gas chamber and crematorium, knowing that many people were led there to believe they were merely going to be given a "disinfecting shower," when in fact they went there to die. Listening to stories of torture, killing, enslavery and imprisonment were horrendous to listen to, I can't begin to imagine experiencing it first hand.
From Auschwitz I, we took a bus to Auschwitz II, otherwise known as Birkenau. Here we saw the incredible vastness of the camp, and just how large this terrible operation was. Admist the horror, we did see a group of young Jewish men, arms wrapped around one another, singing, remembering, and honoring those lost. It was a very moving sight to behold.
While I could go on with details about concentration camps and WWII and other things we learned, I think I will leave off here. For me, this was undoubtedly one of the most difficult days on our trip. Although I already knew much about the concentration camps before our arrival, it was very powerful being there, and left me feeling quite discouraged and overwhelmed about how evil humanity can be.
I leave you with some images taken during our visit, as well as a poem written by Frantisek Bass, a boy who lived and died in Auschwitz, October 28, 1944.
During our stay in the capital of the Czech Republic, we visited many of the highlights of the beautiful city of Prague.
In the castle district, we went to the Rosenberg Palace, where we had a chance to dress up like royalty...
...visit the St. George's Convent/National Gallery and Picture Gallery to see many works of art...
...and stand in awe of the gothic St. Vitus Cathedral, as well as visit other castle attractions.
We took a look at the Lennon Wall, covered in John Lennon inspired grafitti, as well as Beatles lyrics.
Creeped out as well as intrigued, we visited the protruding TV tower covered in creepy crawling babies with barcodes on their faces. A social commentary, certainly, but on what exactly?
We took a walk along the Charles Bridge where we saw many statues as well as views of the city.
In Old Town, we came across charming architecture, cobbled streets, and a festival where we saw a fire-blowing-tuba-playing man, sampled local foods...
...and waited with a swarm of people for the Town Hall clock to chime so we could see the 12 apostles peek through the windows.
Drank some delicious monk-made beers at the Strahovsky Monastery.
Were creeped out a second time when we took a day-trip to the town of Kutna Hora where we saw the Cathedral of Our Lady, St. Barbara Church, and most memorably...Bone Church. Yes, all of the "deocorations" are indeed made of human bones, and it is still a functioning chapel.
Enjoyed the delicious local foods of: trdelník, a delicious pastry grilled, then sprinkled with sugar and nuts (pictured), sausages, cabbage, potatoes and cheese, pork schnitzel...lots of hardy foods good for chilly days. We also had the privilege of sharing a meal cooked by Guy's peace corp buddy Daniel, who is currently teaching in Prague.
Last but not least, we had a close call in our hotel...where someone attempted a break-in! Luckily, they didn't get in, only the door was damaged, and we got a very nice upgrade that night. Whew. Don't know if we could take another robbery!
Budapest is one of the most beautiful cities we have visited. Located right on the Danube River, with a mix of the old and the new all in place, this city has just about anything you could ever want to do, and we tried to squeeze in some of the best highlights during the week we were here.
Here are some of the things we experienced in Budapest:
A tour of the "Pest" side of the city, where we saw the Opera House, the Jewish Quarter, the Great Synagogue, a few of the main squares, a "ruin pub," and famous Andrassy Avenue.
A stop at the Central Market to look at the huge selection of fruits, vegetables, local crafts and delicious Hungarian food...and of course we had to sample some for lunch.
Hungarian foods we tried include: goulash, langos (fried bread smothered in sour cream and cheese), "pancakes" (more like crepes filled with jam), as well as falafel and gyros. At the Hungarian market we enjoyed some potato/beef hash as well as rice balls and some sort of meat/cheese/corn layered item (how's that for an eloquent description?). Our favorite place we ate wasn't typical Hungarian, but "Stone Soup" provided us with some scrumptious meals as well as homemade hot chocolate that tasted like a melted candy bar. Mmmm....
Wandered through St. Stephen's Basilica - absolutely stunning!
Walked down Andrassy Avenue to look at Heroes Square and City Park, but mostly to visit Szechnyi Baths. In this magnificent setting we spent 4 hours soaking in 3 outdoor and 15 indoor thermal baths.
An essential Budapest experience!
Went to a performance of Don Pasquale at the Opera House. I am NOT an opera fan, but the tickets here are VERY cheap (the cheapest is 2 dollars!) and Guy had never been, so off we went. Beautiful building and not too bad...for an opera.
Walked to the "Buda" side of the city were we crossed the Chain Bridge, and took in views of the Buda Castle, Matthias Church, Parliament and Fisherman's Bastion (the most magical looking place EVER).
(Fisherman's Bation, Above)
As we sipped our mulled wine by Buda Castle, we watched the sunset over the Danube River and slowly the lights came on the bridge and surrounding buildings. Breath-taking!