Sunday, September 07, 2008

My Hostel for a Dingo.

This trip is turning into quite the educational tour. One interesting fact I have learned is that during the summer months Eastern Europe becomes home to roving groups of young Australian backpackers. Correction: make that roving HORDES of young Australian backpackers. I think that I may have run into more denizens of Down Under than I have actual locals. I wouldn't mind this so much, since my fellow travelers have been (mostly) warm and welcoming, but the rub is that their good cheer is being fueled by the consumption of massive amounts of beer. From what I have observed, it is a rite of passage for Australian youths, upon graduating from university, to tour the whole of Europe for a year... all the while in the grips of a grueling, never-ending bender. A few months in, by the time they reach the eastern region of the continent, most of them are well into the ugly thick of this [your expletive here]ing bar crawl. As such, when they are not partying, they are comparing notes on the best cities to party in, as well as the various nationalities of the girls they've, er, "known" thus far on the trip, and where the easiest, prettiest girls can be found (Belgrade, by overwhelming consensus). Now, it just so happens that my list of planned lodgings corresponds almost exactly with the bulk of theirs, so I am now taking a break from trekking in order to heavily revise my itinerary, so my path will intersect theirs as little as possible. Don't get me wrong, I don't dislike (again, most of) these Matilda waltzers, but I'm attempting to engage in a voyage with very different goals from theirs, one of solitude and contemplation, not flip cup marathons. (Dear lord! I realize only now that I have gone and matured a little! The horror!)

And so I sit, hunched over books and maps in a hostel in Bucharest, Romania, having arrived a couple days ago by train from Bulgaria. After departing Sofia, I continued on to the cities of Plovdiv (renowned for its numerous Roman ruins and "Old Town" quarter) and Veliko Târnovo (Bulgaria's medieval capital), also by train. If someone had suggested to me, say, five years ago, that one day I would travel alone through Eastern Europe via its railways, I would never have believed them. In spite of my recent conclusion to two years spent living and traveling through West Africa, I am not a naturally adventurous person. Those who know me best would probably tell you that my idea of a fun Friday night is going out to a good movie and following it up by having a quiet drink with a few friends. Still... I could get used to this. The lands through which I'm wandering... Bulgaria, Romania... their names, and those of their towns, intoxicate me as I sound them out aloud, rolling them off my tongue, promising me an earthy mystique. And they do not disappoint.

In Veliko Târnovo, I had the exciting experience of meeting one of the authors of the Romania and Bulgaria entries in the Lonely PLanet guide, which is my preferred travel bible. To his credit, the guy was trying to keep a low profile, just saying he was a travel writer when asked his business, but eventually (after enough beers) he slipped up and I was subsequently able to identify him. Talking to someone I admire is, for me, a lot like dating—I'm not very good at it. The same problems manifest: first, I try to act "above it all," like hanging out with them is no big deal; then I show off, trying too hard to impress with my knowledge and wit; finally, I get self-conscious and awkward, uncertain whether I should retreat and leave them alone or just simply shut the hell up. Fortunately, for once it seems I broke this vicious cycle, because not only did the man NOT sneak out of the hostel to avoid me, he even gave me his business card and an invitation to look him up when I am back in New York.

Like Sofia, Bucharest is a capital city with a less than stellar reputation when compared to other towns in the area. Still, it does have some sights to recommend it for a visit, such as the Palace of Parliament, the largest and most expensive civil (i.e., non-military) administrative building in the world, built during the last years in the reign of the late, not-so-great Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu. This man had the brilliant idea of leveling a large portion of Bucharest's picturesque historic district in order to construct this monstrosity of bureaucracy. Ultimately, Ceauşescu got his comeuppance—via firing squad—in the bloody 1989 revolution, and there are still many standing examples to give the curious an idea why Bucharest was once known as "the Paris of the East." Other highlights include the Museum of the Romanian Peasant, where, in addition to a room devoted solely to Romania's communist past (busts of Lenin abound here), there is an impressive collection of textiles and household artifacts, an entire 19th-century home, and Orthodox Christian icons made of painted glass. Saint George is a popular figure in these latter items; my particular favorite was a comic-like depiction of him smirking back at me as he shoved his spear down the dragon's throat, as though he were bragging, "Yeah, I'm the shit." In most of the other icons featuring him, he's still gazing at us, but appears to have been pumped full of Xanax. Often featured as well in these images is a little guy sitting snugly behind George on his horse, brandishing a tankard and seeming to be really enjoying himself. I naturally assume that this is the artist's representation of one of the hundreds of Australians teeming through this beautiful land.

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