Saturday, September 30, 2006

Râmnicu Vâlcea-Piteşti-Topoloveni-Gaesti/Bucharest.

Trip dist: 115 kms. Trip time: 7 hrs, 40 mins. Tot dist: 6,774 kms.


Uurgh. I spoke too soon. The Carpathians, are, in fact, not quite over. I had to catch the tail end of them in what appeared to be one approximately 500 meter pass and two or three other minor ones for the first 60 kilometers up to Piteşti. Which took up most of the day.

A rather fateful day, as it turns out.

I knew things going to be a bit amiss soon after I started riding, not only because of the unexpected mountains that suddenly appeared where they weren't supposed to be, but also due to some rather...unpleasant encounters with some very...charming...dogs, who on this road, and this road only, would immediately start chasing me as soon as I approached. I didn't think much of it the first time this occurred, for as it happens that time I was riding downhill and the dog (a very small one), didn't stand a chance of catching me, and even if it had, the instinctual lifting of one's feet off the pedals and raising them almost to handlebar level to avoid any possible sudden appearance of teeth marks on one's calves, with the purported pain that would cause, plus its potential associated problems (i.e. having to explain, in Romanian, that you need to find a way to get some very pleasing rabies shots), produced no detrimental effects on the speed of the bike on the downhill.

After it happened 4 or 5 times, in fact, I started even getting used to it, even when the dogs, this time, had grown to medium size.

By the 10th time or so, I had even gotten used to it happening when I was pedalling uphill and the dogs could catch up to me, foaming at the mouth, no problem. It really does take this long to figure out that the dreaded loud, furious barks are a good sign: when the dog is busy barking and running at the same time, it hardly has the means to think about how to bite you, so your moving agonizingly slowly up the uphills in spite of your frantic, panic-fueled pedalling doesn't matter too much.

But no matter how many stupid dogs you've successfully passed by without incident up or down the hill, nothing prepares you for when three of them decide to chase you at the same time.

Holy ships!

Two on my right side, one on my left side, made it impossible to move the bike towards the center of the highway like one usually instinctually does to try to give the dogs coming from the right side a wide berth. Lifting your calf to avoid a possible bite doesn't work anymore because your downhill just ended, the dogs are now catching up, and you need to lift both feet up, because the dogs surround the bike on both sides. This of course, slows the bike precariously. So no hope but keep pedalling.

Freaked me out, that one.

Luckily, no bites. But I swear, I had at least 15 stupid dogs chasing me on this part of the ride all the way to Piteşti. I had not been chased by dogs in the whole 5 months prior to today.

Anyway, as if that weren't a sign indicating unmistakenly that I was drawing the attention of the fates today, there was another event that showed, that today, at least, I also had one or two of the friends of dea Fortuna on my side.

I started the morning ride without breakfast, I don't remember why, leaving late, probably, and without having had previously stocked up on water and provisions for the trip (I was expecting flat or downhill terrain, and there was sure to be a gas station within the next 30 kms or so, so I would have had plenty of time and ways to find snacks and drinks along the way), but as it happens, there weren't all that many places to stop to pick up things to eat on the road, in the end, and the climbs were draining most of my energy, combined, no doubt, with another cold I seem to have caught in the cold nights of Cluj or Alba Iulia.

I was going up one minor hill, in fact, stomach growling in mild pangs of hunger, when almost three quarters of the way up I started feeling a little woozy, you know, like you feel incredibly sleepy all of the sudden, as if all your blood drained out of your head and fell down to your feet, kind of thing, similar to what you feel when you're hypoglycemic. Just as I looked up thinking: "Uh oh, I better get off the bike here and stop immediately, something's going wrong...", I spotted, no less, a little old lady selling apples not 30 meters ahead of me.

Dea Fortuna is kind, and Mother Nature is wise. The perfect solution to my quandry: sugar, and water, all in one little fist-sized package. I got off the bike, walked the 30 meters required, and pointed to the apples with a huge sheepish grin and lifted up the index finger to indicate "one".

"Un kilo?" said the little old lady.

I couldn't help but laugh. "No," I shook my head. I took 1 apple and lifted my index finger again, to indicate one, and proffered the lady a 1 lei banknote (about 30 cents of an Euro).

She took the note, and then gave me another, tiny apple. I laughed, and took it, too.

She offered me another little apple (the little apples were about half the size of the original I had chosen).

I smiled broadly and shook my head: "No, just one."

She again made gestures indicating: "Take it!"

So I did.

She then asked me to choose yet another little apple.

I did, at which point she gave me a little plastic bag for the apples, and sat back down smiling under an unbrella by her little stand mid-uphill in the middle of nowhere Romanian highway.

The apples happily tied me over for a few more dog chases until the next real stop: a snack bar by a gas station at the bottom of one of the hills.

Anyway, in spite of all these vicissitudes I finally arrived to Piteşti, a rather sizeable town, at only 4 p.m., and therefore with at least 2 or 3 more hours of some good cycling possible. Since Bucharest was still a good day's journey away, I figured it would be good to press on a bit closer today, even though my map showed only some rather minor towns for the next 120 kilometers to Bucharest, and Piteşti was large enough to hold at least 10 of them, plus a multitude of internet cafes (always a plus, as you know).

Two towns, however, appeared sizeable enough to contain at least one or two hotels, Topoloveni and Gaesti, in particular, the most promising ones.

I passed by Topoloveni not 1 hour later (20 kms away, all perfectly flat land, easy to pedal over 20 kms an hour): there was 1 hotel in city center. Topoloveni is about half the size of Gaesti (or so says my map), so I figured I'd press onwards: Gaesti was only 20 more kilometers ahead, and that would leave some very pleasant, short 80 kms to Bucharest tomorrow.

I arrived in Gaesti at around 5:30 p.m., plenty of light, plenty of life in the town. I passed by one Motel. It looked o.k., it advertised a bar, a disco, a swimming pool, looked pleasant enough, but it was at the edge of town, and I preferred something closer to the center.

There were no hotels in the center.

Apparently that Motel at the edge of town was the only one here. So back there I went.

I walk inside the Motel. Owner doesn't speak English. I ask for a single room. They don't have any. I ask for a double. "Who is with you?" asks the owner. "Just me". "No double", says he. "Only single."

O.K., so they do have singles after all then. Weird.

"How much?" say I.

"60 Lei."

The price is acceptable.

"Well, do you have a room or not?" I ask.

He tells me to wait.

I wait.

He goes behind the bar area, calls me inside.

Remember, what I told you, back in Budapest, about sensing a vague feeling of dislike? Why does the hotel manager need me to go with him anywhere to answer a simple question that requires only a "Yes" or "No"?

Still, there were two young people about in the bar, a boy and his girlfriend, both in their late teens, playing pool nearby. I would be within sight of them. I followed the hotel manager to behind the bar counter, but without crossing the threshold, without passing the door to the back of the building, which was unlighted, and where he was standing. "Do you have a single room yes or no?" I repeated, feet firmly planted on the threshold.

"Yes," he finally said when he saw I wouldn't go inside.

I walked back to the bar area. "O.K. then, do you need my passport?"

"No need it." said he.

Again, a vague feeling of dislike. Most hotels demand to see your passport. Why not this one?

"O.K. then, can you give me the key?"

He chuckled.

"Yes?" said I.

"Come back later," said he.

Oh no, I start to suspect what kind of motel this place is, even though it does have a swimming pool and it seems teenager friendly.

"Come back when?" ask I.

"One hour," says he, and goes to the deck outside the front door to have a smoke.

I mull about the pool table area for a while. I don't like this. This cannot be the only hotel. I ask the kids at the pool table if there's another hotel nearby. Apparently not.

Let's think rationally. I arrive at the hotel at 5:30 p.m. It is a tiny town, of no interest to tourists. A normal hotel typically has at least 5-10 rooms for guests, yet this one has none available. The only single available is only free in one hour. It is 5:30 p.m. In a normal hotel, checkout time would've been a long time ago.

You see where I'm getting at?

I go outside, ask the manager point blank: "Why can't I get the room now?"

He laughs.

I repeat the question.

"It is occupied."

Aha. This is not good, not good at all. I need to find another hotel, quickly. But as I'm trying to sort this out, the manager asks questions, which I answer hastily and without thinking: "Are you alone?"

Me: "Er, no, I'm waiting for a friend."

But as I answer the default answer for the single travelling woman, I already know my answer doesn't sound believable: I already inquired for a single room.

"Are you married?"


"Where is your husband?"

and so on and so forth. This hotel one won't do, I think as I remember the Budapest mantra: trust your instincts. I have also already exposed my vulnerable situation with my hesistant and confused answers. It is imperative I find another hotel now, I can no longer stay here, who knows who has duplicate keys to my room, and the hotel manager, though good looking, chuckles too much at the wrong places, smiles too much, I don't know. Soon, instincts are confirmed, it must've registered subconciously the first time I passed on the bike, caused me to seek another hotel in city center, but it only becomes rationally clear as I walk outside the gates of the motel: on the reverse, on the sign you'd see if you were travelling back from Gaesti to Piteşti, is the silhuette of a naked woman pulling off the underpants of another.

I stupidly ask this hotel manager if there's another hotel nearby. He gives me the name of a place, that as it turns out, upon asking a woman at a bakery shop in city center, is a town 3 kms north of here.

By now it is quarter past 6 p.m. I bike to this next town. There is no hotel. Dusk is starting to fall. I really do not want to stay at the other hotel. I slowly ride back, in spite of the approaching darkness, thinking....

I could just sit around city center, bus station or something, waiting for morning...but I did not see a bus station, only bus schedules to Bucharest....


Of course! The bus from Piteşti to Bucharest passes by here at least every hour! I had just seen the schedules as I passed by city center--twice! If worst comes to worst, I could always just ride a bus to wherever all night. It would certainly be much safer than any questionable motel with a too charming hotel manager...

I happily step up the pace to city center, and after confirming there are two more busses to Bucharest I can catch (the next one leaves in half an hour), I stroll by the center, buy something to eat, find a restroom, and hang out before settling by a shop right under the bus stop.

A Romanian boy in his early twenties asks me, in perfect English, where I am from.

"Mexico," say I, a bit warily.

"Oh," says he pleasantly. "I knew you were a foreigner!"

"Oh?" say I, politely, though I fully know, of course, the answer to be quite obvious.

"Yeah," he continues, "I saw you pass by on your bicycle several times, I thought you were Chinese, maybe!"

I had to laugh at that one. For all the nationalities I've been confused with (British, French, German, Russian, ha ha, amazingly, Indian, and yes, even--can you believe it?--Dutch), I have, for rather...obvious reasons, never in my life been confused with an Asian. It put me in a good mood, that one, and made me continue the chat a lot more relaxedly.

"What were you doing, running around like that here in this little shit town?" he continued, "You should be careful, there are a lot of gypsies here, they will want to steal your bike. During the day it is o.k., but at night, no good hanging out here."

I smiled, a bit more sardonically, this time. I had heard of this great prejudice towards gypsies. "Oh, I'm just waiting for the bus to Bucharest," I shrugged.

"And you are going to put that--" (here he pointed at my bike) "on the bus?" said he.

"Sure," I shrugged. "Should be o.k., I think, right?"

He thought for a moment, discussed something with an older man standing next to him and following our conversation with curiosity and interest, and finally said: "Yeah, probably. You may have to pay extra, though. You know the bus is coming in 15 minutes, right?"

"Yes," said I.

"I'll talk to the driver for you. You don't know Romanian, right?"

"Nah," smiled I sheepishly. "Thanks."

"Say, this is my uncle, by the way," he introduced me to the other man, who was as friendly and kind and trustworthy as they come. We chit-chatted some more, about life in Romania, about "oh, you should've told me you were looking for a hotel, there's actually one only 2 kms from here near the highway, I would've shown you the way with my bike, but right now it is dark and I need to head home quickly, and by now you're going to Bucharest anyway...", about whether Mexico is a good place to visit, etc. etc. a very nice, pleasant, friendly chat, and the uncle with a smile that inspired in me a great sense of tenderness.

Shortly before the bus came, the uncle suggested the boy and I exchange email addresses in case he ever came to Mexico, perhaps he would give me a call.

I gladly assented, for it is common politeness protocol to invite people to visit one's home, back where I come from. Especially when you know that the people in question probably will never show up there anyway, so I was all for it and even produced pen and paper.

The boy, however, quickly said: "No, don't bother."

"Why?" said I together with the uncle, who was also a bit surprised at this.

"I will never go to Mexico anyway, what's the point?", said he.

"In case you ever do go," said I. "I would be glad to show you around." (This part, no longer courtesy, actually true).

"Nah," said he. "Nevermind, don't worry."

I found this very strange, and it left me with a mild bitter taste in my mouth.

The bus finally came. The boy helped me put my bags on the bus, loaded up the bike, and negotiated with the driver a good price for my bike: 5 lei (about 2 dollars) extra for it because it was "oversize luggage".

As I got on the bus, I shook hands with him, and thanked him for his help and a pleasant chat.

"Don't thank me," said he. "Give me 10 lei instead."

"What?" said I.

"Give me 10 lei. I helped you, now you help me."

The bitter taste I had felt just a few minutes before was now, again, rationally explained. This chat was not a friendly courtesy, it was a transaction. It should've been obvious to me when in spite of pen and paper already produced there was no interest in exchanging contact information, even as a polite, just a show, of courtesy.

I paid him, of course, but not without being able to restrain my naive, bitter muttering: "But I thought you and I were friends...."

I arrived in Bucharest, in the end, not two hours later, at around 9:30 p.m., with plenty of time to find a hotel near the Gara de Nord, a not particularly nice area, in a not particularly cheap nor wonderful hotel, with a turmoil of feelings (fear, exhaustion, wonder at having avoided a potentially very bad situation, and biterness at the interest-based friendliness of the Romanian boy) and with a bit of irascible regret at not having been able to bike the short 80 kms that remained to get here: having cheated, in other words.

But the most important part, the part that made things fine, and well, and good, was that for however strange and long the day had been today, I was, for now, at least, both healthy and safe.

Friday, September 29, 2006

Sibiu-Râmnicu Vâlcea.

Trip dist: 101 kms. Trip time: 5 hrs, 23 mins. Tot dist: 6,659 kms.

Ha ha ha!

"Mischief managed." :)

Crossed the Carpathians today. Child's play, really. :)

I set out 2 hours later than expected, even though I wanted to leave early to leave plenty of time for the Carpathians-crossing before Vampire hour (ha ha! Do you like it? I changed the name in honor of beloved local legend!), because it took no less than 1 full hour to clean the panniers and backpack from the mud of two days ago, and I am still not quite done (the mud sticks and if you use a moist rag to clean it off, when the "cleaned" surface dries, over half of the "clay", which is mixed with some shiny asphalt and glittery quartz powder, still remains). Then, it took another hour to do the back tire replacing, not because that took long in itself, but because I had to clean the mud and grit from the pedal cranks and gear sprockets, an impossible task, basically, without a strong-pressure hose (or even a rinky dink hose would do, at this point), which the hotel did not have. They provided me instead with a little bucket half-filled with water, and a tiny rag the size of a handkerchief.

If you consider that this mud/asphalt/clay/quartz/grit had gotten inside every single orifice and moving part of the bike, you can see why this was rather...time consuming. Towards the end the best I could do is just dump the whole remaining bucket of water onto the bike and hope that worked, somehow.

Even after re-oiling the chain and gears and with replacement tire my bike rode as if it had aged 10 years after those fated 2 hours of rain and dirt approaching gutted Sibiu.

Anyway, the 350 meter pass was a matter of no consequence, especially considering that Sibiu is at 411 meters (there was a bit of a descent, though, before the climb to the pass). After that, except for some minor sections, it was ALL DOWNHILL!! (see for evidence the short time the ride took!), with the road flanking a river and weaving in and out between the towering mountains all around. It was a very beautiful ride (were I to plan a bike race in Romania, in the style of the Tour de France, this would definitely be one of the stages, though I'd probably run it in the opposite direction, to make it a bit more challenging), especially because right after the pass you descend onto the most beautiful spot on Earth, the approach to little town of B--(?), which is not even on my map, tucked away in-between the mountains and the sun illuminating the Orthodox church spires. Since there's nothing around this village for tens of kilometers except the fields and the mountains, I couldn't help but wonder how places like this get settled in the first place.

I was thankful, too, that the road went flat for 90% of the ride, for once you enter the Southern Carpathians, it is mountains, mountains everywhere (360°) for a full 70 kms. Imagine, if I had chosen the Transfăgărăşan road....

Anyway, by the way, I think I saw some rich gypsies!

Yeah, they were having dinner at Râmnicu Vâlcea's McDonald's. What an odd sight. So far all the gypsies I had seen were at the edges of the highways, driving along on horse-drawn carts or selling indeterminate objects at the edges of highways, the women in their characteristic, color-clashing flower-patterned skirts and headscarves, the men in dark pants, white long-sleeved shirts and vests, all of them, rather poor. But this group of teenagers at the McDonald's, while they too had the characteristic, round cut patterned skirts, the fabric of these was lighter and silkier, vaporous, with gold and silver threading and shining brocades, the tops body hugging in modern fashion cuts, head scarves shimmering in luxurious patterns, earings long and of fine gold.

Râmnicu Vâlcea, by the way, in spite of Lonely Planet's claim to being an uninteresting industrial town, seemed to me instead rather pretty: clean with tree-lined streets, and at least all the roads were paved here.

But the best part of it all: no more mountains until I get to Istanbul! :D

Thursday, September 28, 2006


I decided to make an unplanned stop here today, because yesterday, when passing by the old town square, once past all the mud and chaos making a ring around city center, Sibiu looked actually quite pretty. The hour and a half of sunlight still left was not enough to both enjoy it and find a place to stay at the same time (especially considering that the hotel took 5 tries).

Anyway, in the morning on the way to city center I just happened to pass by a bike shop that was open--a lucky occurence and a sign from the gods, for since yesterday I had started to get seriously worried about the back bike tire (remember I told you it needed replacing since all the way back in Spain? For whatever reason, I hadn't found the right time/opportunity/conditions to do so), for after the twice times 3 kilometers on very loose gravel going and returning to/from Câlnic, I could start to see the thread/cord webbing inside lining of the tire, and even thought of patching it up, if necessary, with that beloved panacea for all problems engineering related: duct tape, to prevent possible damage to the now precariously accessible inner tube. You must agree though: if things get to the point where you're genuinely considering this crass default solution, "just duct tape it", so nonchalantly abused by bad first-year engineering students, replacement can no longer wait, the problem has become solemn business indeed.

So I was happy I found the shop, where I even had my choice of replacement tires (I chose one a bit narrower and with less treads than the old one, which was still leaning more towards a mountain bike--these were more of the hybrid/touring variety--to make pedalling imperceptibly easier), and it only cost 18 lei (about 6 Euros)! Cool huh?

Problem and worry thus finally off my shoulders, I headed off to city center after dropping the tire off at the hotel. Funny, the city center actually looks very...."German". They've been freshly painting it and the city looks quite quaint.

Anyway, after the short stroll through the pretty re-painted old part of town I ended up again into the modern part of the city, with its dusty, muddy chaos, and where I strolled by its rather...different...shops.

These guys haven't gotten the hang of capitalism yet.

Take the gypsies, for instance. I constantly see them on the highways, near the edges of microscopic villages, or sometimes even at the gas stations, peddling wares to automobile drivers. But the things they peddle are useless to the typical motorist: so far, I've only seen them sell cut crystal wine glasses (in the roads) or knockoff men's cologne (at gas stations). And they ALL sell this. And ONLY this. (And believe me I have passed by countless gas stations and been on the roads for a while now). Now tell me. Were you passing by, would you think of buying this? Would any of this be useful to you? What's more, if you ever did want to go buy cut crystal wine glasses, or even knockoff perfume, would you even think of going to the middle of the highway somewere to get it? Methinks the gypsies would be far, far better off selling apples or watermelon, or even sodas, if they really wanted to make some money.

But anyway, back to Sibiu and Romanian towns. I may have mentioned already that their department stores are oddly set up: the floors are dirty, unpolished, things are arranged unattractively in half-open boxes helter skelter, and different vendors share space side-by-side in strange territorial overlaps with no delimitation. And in streetside shops, the wares are not specialized. Any given shop at random will sell both clothing, shoes, and teacups, there is no such thing as "the leather store", or "the hair accessory store", or even "the sock store", they all sell everything, and the store next door to yours is exactly the same and sells the same kinds of things (not too difficult, since they all sell everything that you cannot use).

The town is full of "minimarts" (I have not seen even one single supermarket in the whole time I have been in this country), where everything is behind the counter and you need to ask for it to the vendor. You cannot "browse" and in the rare places where perhaps there is half a shelf mistakenly or for lack of space fortuitiously placed in front of the counter, you are guaranteed to see at least one store attendant planted firmly at its side in an attitude of custody, following you with their eyes and even approaching you whenever you happen to pick up something to look at the ingredients (so that you don't walk out of the store with it, presumably?).

Weird, huh?

Anyway, tomorrow: cross the real Carpathians. Hope that relief map was accurate...

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Alba Iulia-Sebeş-Sibiu.

Trip dist: 80 kms. Trip time: 6 hrs, 13 min. Tot dist: 6,558 kms.

Oh boy. What a ride (and not in a good way!). Where to start?

The day started pretty promising, even though the road had a lot of uphill/downhills, through "hills" that were minor mountains. Montes, is the word for these hills in Spanish, something between a hill and a mountain, the word for which I cannot find in English.

I passed by a good part of Jules Verne's Carpathian route, detailed in his story "Le Château des Carpathes" of the series Extraordinary Voyages, (and which, in spite of being a Verne fan, I have not yet read, unfortunately), as the sign just outside of the town of Sebeş pointed out. If you think that, as it happens, his route goes pretty much the way I'm headed on my bike from Cluj all the way to Sibiu, well, it turns out that my proud "discovery" in the halways of a little old lady's pension in Budapest was not, after all, all that "secret". Esoteric, perhaps, only. :)

Anyway, all of this and a cool, cloudy (but not rainy) weather kept me in good spirits for the start of the ride, and what was my surprise when checking the map I discovered that, unbeknownst to me up to that point in spite of my rather careful marking of the 160+ UNESCO World Heritage Sites on my big map of Europe prior to departure from the U.S., I had missed the fortified town of Câlnic, which, as it happens, was only 3 kms off the E68/E81, the road I was on.

So off I took a minor detour there, on a lonely, loose gravel road (see picture above) heading towards some valley in between the mountains, and no sooner had I started the descent from a difficult (not easy having good traction on loose gravel) prior 1 km ascent, that I found myself as if having crossed over to the "Twilight Zone".

Seriously. It was as if time had stood still, transported back to the mid 19th century. Approaching the little village I saw one or two people, an old woman with headscarf and dark-colored dress walking towards the village here, a little old man with a rough wooden walking stick walking away there, the only vehicles horse-drawn carts. But then as I entered the village, I was hit immediately with the silence, there were no people walking about, the few that were stopped whatever it was that they were doing (fixing a house façade here, picking up hay with a pitchfork there), including walking, to stare and follow my trajectory with the head, but without smiling or saying a word, adding more to the silence and the eerie feel of things.

I then approached the city center, and was about to veer towards where the fortress ruins were according to the signs, but as I approached I saw two kids no older than 7 or so in hostile attitudes: one of them held a long horsewhip which he emphatically started cracking as soon as I approached, thus "encouraging" me to pass by.

Passing by, however, soon led me to the edge of the village, which was less than 600 meters across, so I had to turn back, and besides I wanted to see this famous fortress: if it is a UNESCO WHS, it should receive visitors, sometimes, right?

So back to city center. I carefully avoided the boys with whips, who again, cracked them with silent stares as I approached, read the little blurb outside the fortress detailing how it was constructed (uninteresting information to me), and then went on to discover that it was closed.

So back for 3 kms on loose gravel it was. Total time spent in the village of Câlnic: 15 minutes.


Anyway, as I said, then going to Sibiu the road got rather mildly mountainous, but with very beautiful views, until something like 40 kms before Sibiu, it started to rain.

This wouldn't have been too bad (I've biked in the rain before, as you know), except that here in Romania things are very dusty--there is loose earth and dirt everywhere. And you know what happens when you combine dirt with water, right?

Right. As it happens, at about 20 kms before Sibiu, the rain turned instead, for me, into a veritable mudbath. It was unavoidable, the dirt was everywhere! And right before Sibiu they were doing a lot of "road fixing". Except that here in Romania they tend to like to "fix" everything at once, instead of section by section, so you have very large stretches of unkempt and unpaved and dirt-exposing roads. Combine this with the splashing your wheels are doing onto your clothes and panniers. Combine this with the mud splashing the trucks are contributing to you every time they pass. And this dirt, this mud, was not just mud that is black and has this oatmeal-like consistency but then falls off or you can brush it off, clean mud, in other words, no, it was clay-like mud, made out of ochre-colored earth that sticks onto your tires and fingers and gets into your braking mechanisms and gears and pedal cranks. After 20 minutes of this, I had to stop at a gas station, and try to clean things as best as I could: the derailleur was no longer even shifting gears properly.

So I found a gas station and looked at myself in the mirror with much trepidation, for if the state of the crystal on my glasses was any indication, I must've been covered in mud head to toe.

And it was so! It was icky just to look at the state of my clothes, splashed about everywhere! Yuck.

So, cleaned things as best as possible (an effect that lasted, in the end, only 10 minutes after I once more started pedalling again), hoping that things would get better once I entered the city.

It was not to be. As it happens, they are doing some sort of MAJOR overhaul on the electrical lines of Sibiu. These lines are buried right underneath the sidewalk surrounding most of city center. Now, tell me. If you were a city engineer, and you were given the task to plan out the logistics of replacing all of the city's underground electrical cable, how would you do it?

Here, they have decided, apparently, that it is best to do it all at once. Which means, that all of the sidewalks and part of the streets surrounding most of city center have been jackhammered, earth uncovered, and opened up, to expose the electrical wires and guts to the city.

Even in no rain, it would not be hard to imagine the mountains of loose dirt that this would cause.

Even in no rain, it takes no stroke of genius to forsee the traffic jams it would produce, and the re-routing of incomming traffic it would require.

Multiply the chaos by 10, in the rain.

None of this, apparently, has been considered here. Unbelievable. The traffic: trucks, cars, motorcycles, bicycles and pedestrians await in move at a speed of 2 cm/hr congestions cursing and honking interminably. The puddles: 2 or 3 meters long and 5 cms deep. The clayish, sticky, sickly ochre brown mud: EVERYWHERE. If I was expecting to somehow get cleaned up after arriving in Sibiu, I was gravely mistaken. It would've been like trying to fight the 7-headed hydra.

I have no doubts that my appearance was the reason why I was refused a room in 4 of the hostels I tried (I swear, I looked like I had just been pulled out of some Brazilian favela).

After dark, however, I found a hotel that was under renovation (lobby currently being whitewashed, at 9 p.m. at night, paint fumes flying, as I speak!), and therefore in as much state of chaos as my bike, clothes and luggage were. I guess the managers figured, my hair made stiff and coiffed by thin clay sculpting gel, I wouldn't much clash with the decor there.


Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Cluj Napoca-Turda-Aiud-Alba Iulia.

Trip dist: 100 kms. Trip time: 6 hrs, 13 min. Tot dist: 6,478 kms.

Ha ha, well, I discovered at least part of the reason why I was so tired upon arriving to Cluj. The pass, elevation unmarked in my map, leading up to Huedin is in fact something like 540 meters high. So that explains things at least somewhat...

And I that I had thought I had only "grazed" the Western Carpathians (a.k.a the Apuseni Mountains, for you geography freaks).

Right. So now, I need to somehow head over to Bucharest. This involves, as you know, somehow crossing the Southern Carpathians, also known as the Transylvanian Alps (what an ominous name, eh?). The ominousness of the name is not from the Transylvania part but the "Alps" part, for as it turns out, this mountain range has peaks up to 2,500 meters and one very famous highway, the Transfăgărăşan Highway, built during the time of Ceaucescu, for instance, passes between the two peaks at Moldoveanu and Negion at no less (er, sometimes less, but I meant "no less" as an emphatic figure of speech) than 2,000 meters of altitude!

Of course, I wasn't going to be climbing on that. ;)

So, which way to cross then? Most people cycling through Romania avoid the Southern Carpathians altogether by heading south to Timişoara, thus only barely catching the edge of the Southern Carpathians, then following the Danube eastwards, which I had not done, of course, by heading into the middle of Transylvania at Cluj (because I wanted to see Sighişoara). The ones that do head to Sighişoara on a bike (and I think they're nuts to do so, because the climbing and mountains I saw from the train windows heading there was no doubt a good part of the reason it took that train almost 3 hours to travel the short 150 kms to there), head south eventually through Braşov, and along the Predeal Pass just south of it with an elevation of about 1050 meters.

My cycling predecessors, however, were not lucky enough to stay at the rooms of a little old lady in Budapest. On the corridor right outside my bedroom door, there was a very nice, relief map of Hungary, with Romania all included. A beautiful, terrain map I could study for hours at my leisure and even...touch, thus feeling the elevation surface with my fingers where the eyes were easily fooled! And this map suggested that the 2nd lowest pass was at Petrosani, near Târgu Jiu (elevation, subsequently confirmed on good road atlas: 750 meters), a little bit southwest of Cluj, but the best place to pass, the lowest, where climbing was only 350 meters or so (and therefore nothing since Cluj is already at 300 meters itself!) was between Alba Iulia and Ramnicu Valcea: the highway passes right in between two of the Southern Carpathian mountain chains, weaving in and out of the edges of the mountains, in a deep valley following a river. The highway is so well hidden, at least on the relief map, that it feels like I've discovered a secret.

Or at least, that's the theory. At the Youth Hostel in Cluj, I've asked the various receptionists in turn, which is the best way to pass over to Bucharest. Most people drive by Braşov: it is the shortest route. But...most people also get there by car.

So I'm trusting my little old lady's map, and my Romanian road atlas published by the Hungarian company Cartographia for the actual elevation figures. Off to Alba Iulia I went, not without some chagrin, upon hearing from the receptionist, that the first 10 kms towards Alba Iulia from Cluj would be an unrelentless, merciless climb.

And he was right! But the rest was pretty easy, as you can see from the time it took (pretty flat after the climb, which took a little over an hour!) to get there. I arrived in Alba Iulia at 5 p.m., but then, as it turns out, the only pension in this small town was full, and there were only 3 other hotels--ALL with room prices of at least 50 Euros.

Now, if you consider that according to my Lonely Planet, the average monthly wage in Romania is only 55 Euros, you'll appreciate why this price is absurd. And, you'd think that with 3 hotels competing with each other, at least one of them would have a good price, but no, they all are within 1 Euro of each other. Lonely Planet, by the way, claims that one of them, Hotel Transylvania (ha ha!) costs only 22 Euros. This is not true. I check the date of publication on the guidebook bought just 1 month ago: it is the year 2002.

Anyway, finding all of this out took 3 hours of cycling up and down and around in Alba Iulia, and in the end, I had no choice, but to stay in this communist era Hotel Transylvania, which was, just like the others, at those prices, pretty much empty.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Cluj Napoca, Day 2.

I'm still recovering from that cold. I feel very tired. Decided to rest today, and went to the movies with Youth Hostel friends Chris, a blond and blue-eyed gentleman from Norway, and Mike, a blond and blue-eyed gentleman from Australia.

We went to a horror movie (>;)), "Silent Hill".

It sucked.

Movies based on videogames should never be made.

Still, it was nice hanging out, sharing popcorn, shouting during anything resembling a half-suspenseful scene, and grabbing onto the nearest blond and blue-eyed cutie (I was sitting in the middle, of course :)) whenever things got too scary for poor little defenseless girl like me.


Sunday, September 24, 2006


So, Sighişoara is included in the UNESCO World Heritage site because it is a beautiful, fortified medieval town built by the Saxons.

Nowadays, outside the city center it is rather poor and bucolic, like most of the Romania I have so far seen, and inside the city center it is a billboard for Dracula souvenirs, also because this was Vlad Ţepeş' birthplace (Did you know, by the way, that Bram Stoker never visited Romania? And that his famous novel--I'm talking about Dracula, of course, which is a rather neat book to read, especially when you're alone at home and it is dark and rainy outside, really!--was originally to be set somewhere not in Transylvania, but in Austria? Cool, huh?).

However, there are some neat things that make Sighişoara kind of eerie:

1. It is very silent.

2. Today the weather was very cloudy (therefore dark) and cold.

3. The only sounds I could hear were the rooster crowing and the dogs barking ("Listen to them, the children of the night. What music they make!").

4. No, that was inaccurate, I am walking by an old 1800's cementery, with mostly German and some (few) Hungarian names, at the top of the hill behind the town, right by a church, whose bells are tolling solemnly, and the doleful sounds of the Orthodox chorus creeps over the tombstones like the overgrown moss and ivy with which they're covered.

You know, the little I've heard of Romanian (folk?) music is very sad: all in minor tones with lamenting melodies. I wonder, how much Romanian classical music took from that. Mental note: I should listen to some Enescou, one of these days.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Cluj Napoca/Sighişoara.

Probabilities, II.

Travelled today to Sighişoara. Took all day (it was supposed to be a day-trip, but the train comes into Cluj at 2 p.m. and arrives in Sighişoara at 5 p.m., making a day trip impossible. There is an earlier train, of course, but it leaves at 5 a.m., while the midday train at 12:00 p.m. arrives already at 3 p.m. There's nothing in-between the 5 a.m. and the 12:00 p.m. trains, trip not practically possible. The bus schedules are even worse).

So, not much to report today, except that I expect to have something like 7 years of good luck following an encounter with an Icelandic guy in the Youth Hostel!

Why is that, you say?

Well, consider, that the population of Iceland is only about 300,000. The probabilities of you meeting someone that comes from this country at random are....well, you figure it out, it is pretty easy to calculate: assuming meeting any given person of the 6 billion people on the planet is equally likely, the probability that the next person you meet is Icelandic is less than 0.005 percent. Yes, that is, a 5x10-5 chance!

Now, of course, we all know that that probability is way less if, say, for instance, you live in the countryside of, say, Senegal and you never travel, or if you work at an oil rig off the Gulf of Mexico which requires you to be on the platform for most months of the year, for instance, and conversely, it is much higher, of course, if you work at Heathrow Airport at the terminal where all the connecting flights from Icelandair arrive, or at the French embassy in Reijkiavik, for instance.

In fact, I once even spotted (but did not meet) 10 Icelanders, standing in line precisely at Heathrow (I knew because their passports looked a little unusual), once, and felt rather fortunate then, but tonight...TONIGHT! I had a veritable, real Icelander from Reijkiavik sitting accross the table from me and who was, no less, chatting with me good-naturedly.

Can you believe it?

When I explained it to him that these kinds of things do not happen every day, and asked for permission to rub his (very blond!) hair for good luck, he assented with a chuckle and a broad smile.

"Yeah, that's true!" he said, "there are so few of us."

"In fact," he continued, "you know how each country has these protocols, for how you politely get acquainted, or small talk, or whatever?"

"You mean like chatting about the weather, first?" said an Irishman sitting nearby.

"Yes," said our Icelander friend. "You know how it is in Iceland?"

"Tell us!" said I, fascinated.

"In Iceland, the first thing you do when getting acquainted with someone new, is to try to see how you two are related."

"Oh?" said the funny Irishman. "You mean like playing 6 degrees of Björk, kind of thing?"

"Yes! Exactly!" said he. "In Iceland, since there are so few people, everyone is pretty much related. So when you meet someone, you first start asking each other where they're from, and who they went to school with, and before long it will turn out that one of you will know one of the other's friends (or relatives), and so now suddenly you have friends in common, and you're not strangers anymore."

Cool, huh?

Friday, September 22, 2006

Cluj Napoca, Day 1.

Switched hotels in the morning, to a Youth Hostel, as it was expensive and lonely in the hotel near city center. There's not all that much to see in Cluj, and besides the cold I caught somewhere in Hungary is killing me, I feel tired all the time. So today mostly all I did was hang out, rest, try some delicious pork stew with mămăligă (which is basically exactly like Italian polenta, and thus this dish reminded me of one of my personal favorites from home: ucellini scappati, minus the pork, of course, :P) read a bit, and chatted up the cute guys at the hostel all day, basically.

Yup, a very exciting life, I lead, these days. :)

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Oradea-Huedin-Cluj Napoca.

Trip dist: 158 kms. Trip time: 9 hrs, 6 mins. Tot dist: 6,378 kms.

Wow, what a beautiful, beautiful ride! It was all pretty flat and boring for the first 40 kms or so (I guess I still was catching the end of the Hungarian puszta), but then....the Carpathians started.

Yup, and then there was a lot of uphilly-downhilly that in reality was not uphilly but upmountainy-downmountainy, so it was very..."fun".

Still, a small descent into Huedin (after a very tough ascent ;P) revealed such beautiful, bucolic landscapes, exactly like those 18th and 19th century romantic paintings, complete with haystacks and all.

Were I to recommend some bike rides through Romania, this most definitely would be one of them. It was tough, so one might shorten it, and start closer to Huedin, but oh, how wonderful the views, a well-deserved reward for the effort of the day!

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Oradea, Day 2.

Cluj-Napoca, my next Romanian destination, is 153 kms away. Assuming the terrain allows me to pedal at 15-20 kms/hr, I need to wake up at 7 a.m. in order to make it there before dark.

So this morning I woke up, to see it was very dark and rainy outside. I hadn't listened to the weather reports, but as I waited 1 hour, and then 2, for the skies to clear it became obvious (clear! ha ha!) that it wouldn't happen.

It really sucks to bike in the rain, so I decided to take another day off. For only 17 Euros a day (Youth Hostel prices!) I get satellite TV (and wow, by the way, remember those protesters I told you I simply avoided by taking a side street on the morning I left Budapest? Turns out, by Monday the protest had moved in front of Parliament, where they burned up some cars and clashed with police, and then they headed over to the TV station nearby, where they went ahead and stormed it. 150 people injured. The reason the mob was so angry? Because Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany publically admitted to lying "morning, afternoon, and night" about the state of the Hungarian economy. Yikes! This all not 2 blocks from where my Youth Hostel was! I guess I left Budapest right on time, then...), a single, very spacious bedroom with a queen size bed in a hotel that looks rinky-dink outside but with sparkling, look at myself in the mirror white and green marble floors, and very well kept antique furniture. The luxury! So it wasn't that hard to stay, in spite of there not being much to do in the city.

The rain throws things into chaos here. They are repairing the street in front of the hotel (which is the main downtown pedestrian-only street) which is now muddy and dirty. The more I think about Nadia Comaneci and the Olympics and those athletes who made it out of the country and saw the world the more I think how lucky they must've felt. Given that this was the only opportunity for most people to leave, the competition to get in and remain in these kinds of programs, not just for gymnastics, but for any kind of talent or ability: music, mathematics, science, arts, whatever (and note it is just kids, who joined as young as 10 years old or even less) must've been terrifyingly intense. Now I have a much greater respect (as if that were even necessary, because even without knowing and seeing where they came from they were already remarkable)....for some friends I made in college.

Funny, the coins are so worthless here, merchants simply round the prices off and don't even bother giving you exact change...

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Oradea, Day 1.

Blech, legs a bit sore from 3 days of fighting the wind, decided to take a rest day (yeah, and you know that the fact that I'm making up the excuse means I didn't even believe it myself, but hey, subsumption rule #3: "there's no need to hurry" sort of applies, even if I am at least 2 weeks behind schedule and I'm racing the winter weather, by now).

There's not all that much to see or do in Oradea except see their Cathedral. I'd never been inside an Orthodox church before. They are very pretty, with a large, square-shaped central nave, walls all painted in bright reds, blue, and gold, and no places to sit. At the center of the vault under the dome hangs a chandelier, not very high off the ground, so perhaps it is actually a censer, I do not know. But it was very beautiful (see pics).

Otherwise, I rested and pretty much watched TV all day (this TV was satellite connected so I got several channels in German plus English films with Romanian subtitles, not to mention, can you believe this? "Rebelde", a well-known--and very addictive--Mexican "telenovela" series, so it was a dream!). And yeah, for those who read that statement with disdain let me remind you I'm no couch potato so I deserved it, won this day of TV lazy buming fair and square. Look at the kilometer count above.

What else? Looked at some shops. They had this very strange department store, it was very run down and unkempt. The floors were falling apart (i.e. cracked) and dirty, not shiny marble like they should be, selling old polyester low-quality clothing, lots of different vendors with things arranged helter skelter and without organization in a huge ugly, fluorescent-lighted building. It reminded me of the poorer towns in Mexico of 20 years ago. These guys are pretty scrod, I think.

Apparetly, the devastating effects of communism are a lot worse (i.e. they last longer, for one) than I thought....

Monday, September 18, 2006


Trip dist: 93 kms. Trip time: 5hrs, 19 min. Tot dist:6,220 kms.

Well, if you thought Czech city names where hard to pronounce....

What a difference crossing into Romania! As soon as I crossed the border I was greeted with a very dusty, pot-holed highway, and trucks that drive like bus drivers in Mexico City (for those of you not "in the know", it means that they pass grazingly close to you). Everybody jaywalks here, cars don't stop at zebra crossings, and even proudly invade them to park on them, there are no qualms about taking the lane in the other direction if the current one is moving too slow, making U-turns in the middle of avenues is normal, and pedestrians unabashedly block the bike lanes (and in Oradea there was only one: it lasted 200 meters).

I can tell immediately I'm no longer in a "Germanic" country (Hungary, though poor, still operated with a very orderly, polite civic culture). It is chaotic, dirty, dusty, fast-paced, and with a certain "latinness" to it. The cars move faster, screech the brakes, there is lots of honking, giving it a...somewhat....familiar feel. I would even call it, dare I say it?....comforting, maybe.


Sunday, September 17, 2006


Trip dist: 74 km Trip time:4 hrs, 42 min. Tot dist: 6,127 kms.

Well, the Hungarian plains, the puszta, in other words, are rather boring, landscapewise. Very flat. Lots of wind against. Parched landscape with dead sunflower fields. I haven't even seen the famed horses that supposedly run wild in the plains. Oh well, I guess they like to avoid the fast traffic roads. ;)

Arrived in Karcag, which I would pick as the archetypical communist town. There are no shops (or very few), and they are all closed, and all the buildings are a shining example of what our handsome dark-haired and hazel-eyed guide in Prague called "brutal architecture": communist era high gray concrete apartment blocks. But the town, nevertheless, is still somehow charming, and the people here are very friendly.

The hotels were all closed, but after I finally managed to get a hold of the lady running one of them on the phone, she even drove me the full 3 blocks (!) to the nearest internet cafe/shop/hub, which I would've never found on my own, because as it turns out it was a video and DVD store, which happened to have two computers that people could come and use, a fact which was not advertised anywhere outside.

But the town itself was surprisingly rather nice, there were people strolling about with lots of children (come to think about it, it is perhaps this what lent this concrete-building city its pleasant, happy feel), one big garden near the town center, several teahouses where people sat down to chit-chat relaxedly, and surprisingly, in spite of the small size and understocked shops that didn't open, it wouldn't be too bad a place to spend a restful weekend.

Funny, as I approach the Romanian border (I will cross into Romania tomorrow), I start to feel the trip's end, and this comes, unsurprisingly, with a small, faraway pang of melancholy: a broken corner in the Spring of satisfaction.


Saturday, September 16, 2006


Trip dist: 104 kms. Trip time: 6 hrs, 51 min. Tot dist: 6,053 kms.

Celebrations VI/Foreigners.

Blech, didn't sleep too well last night. I arrived at the hostel at around 10 p.m., when my two female roomies from Brazil asked me if I wanted to go clubbing. I had a long ride the next day, so I said, no thanks, and went to catch up on emails on the internet instead. I was thus engaged when I suddently noticed a man in his mid-30's wearing a dark suit, which I vaguely thought strange (who wears a suit in a Youth Hostel?), pacing back and forth in the lounge, and eventually staring at me (the computer was in a room adjacent to the lounge, and his pacing was spanning both rooms).

"Sorry, do you need to use the computer?" I asked.

"Er, yes, will you be long?" said he.

"Actually, yes, but if you need the computer, I can cut it short."

"No worries," he said, "take your time, I will just wait here."

"O.K. then," said I, and went back to my emails.

Shortly afterwards, though, the man started pacing again, and finally asked me, "The two girls that were here just a little while ago, you know them?"

"The Brazilian girls, you mean?" said I, distractedly.

"Uh, yes, them," he said.

Me: "Sort of."

Him: "Will they be gone long?"

Me: "What?"

Him: "Where did they go?"

Me: "Clubbing, I think, were you waiting for them?"

Him: "Yes, I was. Well, I guess they're gone. I'll just wait out here for a while, then, I was supposed to go with them, I guess maybe they'll come back in a little bit."

Now, there was something about this man that immediately gave me a sensation of dislike, right from the very first moment I saw him pacing about. It was not a strong vibe of something, just a vague feeling that this was not someone I would care to get to know, or go clubbing with, for instance, or even want to engage in a conversation. I don't know why. The suit-wearing in a hostel, perhaps? The slavic accent? The wrinkles drawn on his face? I don't know. Either way, I was busy, and thought nothing of it.

A triplet of Irish boys checked in to the hostel, and put their stuff in one of the rooms surrounding the lounge (remember, the lounge was in the next room to where I was), and then left (by the way, this is all taking place on the 2nd floor of the Hostel, the reception is on the first floor downstairs).

I saw the man pacing about again.

Later, two French guys staying at the hostel saw me on the internet, and as I knew them from a couple of days of staying there, we started chit-chatting.

The Irish boys came back, and go to their rooms. Suddenly, one of them walks agitatedly towards me and asks:

"Did you see anyone here?"

"What?" said I. "I saw you, and your friends, why?"

"Someone took my iPod."

Another one of the Irish guys joins us: "My wallet is missing!" he says.

Oh no. I quickly check my bag. When I came in to the hostel, I briefly had popped into my room to set my jacket down, but had decided to check my email while holding on to my day bag, where I put my wallet and telephone, camera and 4 GB of memory---my life, in other words, just this time by coincidence, since I usually just leave it in the room. My bag is, of course, safely strapped across my chest, with its wallet and everything intact. But I go to my room just to make sure, when the Irish boys indicate that that is their room also.

All my bags are unzipped. I never leave them unzipped. And...there is stuff in there that I really, really wouldn't want stolen. Luckily, though, it is not obvious what that stuff is or where it is kept, either, so it is safe, and so are all other things (clothes, mostly). Clearly the thief had had no time to carefully search for things, only things that were obviously within easy reach of a zipper or two were taken. I have been lucky, but the Irish boys have all lost electronics and money.

"There was no one else here?" says the Irish boy.

"Well, what about that gentleman in a suit? Where's he now?" said I.

We all look at each other. One of the French boys says: "Yes, I saw him, just 10 minutes ago! Is he a guest?"

Irish boys go down to reception. Receptionist (a male) comes up. No, he is not a guest. How does the receptionist know? He saw him pass by and wait outside in the corridor, he thought the suit was waiting for someone from our floor.


Right under our noses. And what is to be admired, how well executed and skillful and calm and cold-blodded: the information gathering to figure out exactly how much time he had. He knew the Brazilian girls wouldn't be coming back for a long while. He knew I was going to be busy in the computer for a long while. He saw the Irish boys just come in and then step down one floor to the reception. He then left inconspicuously, probably even waving me goodbye as he passed me staring intently at my web-browser.

Anyway, to make the long story short, the Irish boys were so depressed, they went out drinking. French boys were going out anyway, and I'm left alone in the top floor with the receptionist downstairs, and a thief in a suit that walks in and out of the hostel as he pleases, apparently. Did not make for very restful dreams. To top it off the Brazilian girls burst in the room at 4 a.m. and flick on all the lights to "find out what has happened here" and check to see if their stuff is gone. It is not, all of their luggage was locked. But it took them 1 full hour to figure this out, plus it then took them another hour to discuss, quite loudly, how it was that they were going to call a cab to catch their train to Vienna, so you can imagine that after going to bed after 1 a.m. a bit freaked and begging the receptionist to come check on the 2nd floor at least every hour to make sure no one has broken back in it was not a very relaxing night for me, not at all.

Curious, though, how this "sixth sense" business works. I had not liked the man right from the very beginning. But it was a very vague feeling, it was nothing strong and obvious, and most importantly I wouldn't be able to tell you why I didn't like him, that is, neither what it is that I had observed that seemed "odd" that gave me a reason to dislike him, nor what it is about him that I disliked in the first place. Still, good mental note: always trust your instincts. And, always keep your valuables with you, even in the hotels and hostels.

Anyway, I left rather late this morning from Budapest, avoiding a crowd of protesters that had seemed to gather in one of the main avenues just outside my hostel, battling a cold, and with the wind against me for the whole length of the very flat, boring landscape ride. There is nothing uglier than interminable fields of dried up sunflowers: it is a very depressing reminder of the ephemeral nature of beauty. They must've been breathtakingly pretty in the summer....

My maps, too, are rather outdated: road #4, which was the one I had chosen for riding, has since been replaced with a motorway, so at the advice of some folks at a gas station I took another road not even on my map, but which after a couple of kilometers revealed itself to be named road #400, and what my map called "road #4", was, in fact, a strange combination of real roads #40 and #400, the ones I actually took.

But anyway, I arrived, eventually, at Szolnok, just as dusk was falling, and stayed at a very friendly communist-era hotel (36 Euros a night, but was the cheapest thing I could find in the darkness), where the receptionist chatted to me good-naturedly about the foreigners who visit, my compatriots, he continued in Italian after seeing my passport, especially, who come to Szolnok to go on hunting expeditions in the neighboring areas, and just love to send the Hungarian hare and partridges they have hunted as Christmas presents to impress their loved ones in Italy.

"We sometimes get some Germans, too, but they like to come here for the mineral baths, but we never get any Japanese. Can you believe that? Never, in my 17 years working here, did I ever see a Japanese. Italians, yes, even back in the old days before '89, they really love the hunting, and after the hunts they always invite me to these great dinners they have with lots of wine and 6 or 7 courses..."

"Yeah," interjected I with a chuckle brought about by some happy childhood reminiscences, "long social dinners are a very Italian thing..."

"Yeah! You're right! And they always invite me to them, that they cook to celebrate, yes. Lots of Italians. But never any Japanese. Though I did see 2 Norwegians, once."

"Really?" said I, just to politely continue the conversation. "What are the Norwegians like? What do they think of Hungary?"

The receptionist smiled broadly at me for a few moments, to emphasize before replying:

"Like aliens."

"What?" said I.

"Yes, they come here, and look around them all spaced-out and confused, as if they were walking on the moon!"

We had a bit of a laugh over that, before he handed me my keys good-naturedly.


Friday, September 15, 2006

Budapest, Day 4.

Today I declared a rest day. I caught a cold, so I didn't do much. Passed by Nyugati pályaudvar, one of the three Budapest train stations, where they have a super cool aerial photo of the city, and in which you are encouraged to take some little stickers pasted on some columns nearby and place them on the map, to express the areas of the city you are happy with, unhappy with, and give high or low ratings to. It is a pretty neat and fun concept and were I a politician I'd be sure to check this map every once in a while: as I point out in the movie, there are a lot of unhappy smilies concentrated around the area of parliament! (Most of the happy faces seem to be concentrated around the parks and public baths).

Anyway, I passed by the Nyugati train station because I was on my way to Margaret Island, where there's not all that much to see except a park, and where I sat down for a long time because the walk and the incipient cold I had caught somewhere made me very, very tired. It was good though, because the weather was quite nice, and I sat down in a pretty area over where the leaves on the trees were starting to fall, and....daydreamed.

I hadn't done that in a long while. :)

You know, there's a marked difference between the feel of the parks in the U.S. and the ones here in Europe.

In the U.S., the people in the parks are always busy--playing frisbee, soccer if in a group, reading or drawing/painting if alone. Couples are "together", but not quite together, because they do individual things not involving the other: one reads while the other sleeps, one paints while the other plays with the dog, etc.

Here in Hungary, pairs of same-sex friends sit down on benches and talk lazily to one another as they watch the people saunter by. Real couples, even elderly ones, kiss and stare languorously into each other's eyes, talking softly. Lone people simply people-watch. The sense in the park a lot more relaxed and peaceful. The only busy ones in these parts are the children, who are running about and playing.

Parks here in Hungary are no sanctums for sport: there are no joggers or rollerbladers here, and bicycles, always passing slowly and leisurely by, are rare. It seems that parks here are more like places of rest and to be enjoyed. The Germans have a word for this: geniessen. {shrug}

In these parks, time really does stand still, while it travels vertiginously as always in the city that surrounds it just outside. One quick glance at the watch revealed that, from the time I had sat down and started daydreaming at this quiet island park, two hours had already passed.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

In Vienna for interview.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006


Trip dist: 0 kms. Trip time: 3 hrs, 15 mins. Tot dist:5,949 kms.


Heh. I have been summoned back to Vienna (ha ha! I say it as if I were someone important called by someone even more important! ;P): 2nd round of interviews for that little engineering company I told you about.

So not much to tell you about today here, except that I had a very amusing conversation with a Vienese gentleman (in his late 70's) on the train from Budapest. He approached my compartment shortly before departure (I was sitting alone up to that point), looked at me with piercing little eyes behind a pair of spectacles, and opened his mouth as if to say something, but thought better of it, and sat down in front of me instead.

[I thought this amusing. I concluded immediately this gentleman was Austrian. I don't remember exactly what was that hinted to this: his dress, perhaps, a book he was carrying, the demeanor, I don't know. But what was amusing was that it was obvious he was about to ask for permission to occupy the same compartment, except that he clearly had thought I most likely spoke Hungarian, which he did not, and thus not knowing what to say, decided against saying anything at all].

A Hungarian girl then joined us (she did ask for permission, in Hungarian, first, but with neither me nor the Austrian gentleman knowing what to reply, we merely simply nodded when she said what I assumed was "Is this seat free?"), and proceeded to have a very long conversation on her cell phone, and when that ended, 45 minutes into our journey (the train to Vienna from Budapest takes almost 3 hours), she then occupied herself with grooming her eyebrows on the compartment's mirror.

This was, of course, of no consequence or interest to me, except for the fact that it produced a rather amusing reaction in the little old man in front of me, who looked at her quite appalled, and just obviously bursting at the seams to say something.

Which he, of course, did not, since he didn't speak Hungarian.

Anyway, eventually the girl got off the train at some border town, and as there was still at least an hour and a half to go before arrival, I decided to test the little conjectures I had up to that point been forming about my train trip companion.

"Sind Sie Österreicher?", said I, to break the ice ["Are you Austrian?"].

"Yes, from Vienna," replied he (in German, of course. All of this conversation was in German, I'm just writing it in English from here on for you).

[Bingo on deductions 1 and 2: He is Vienese and does not speak Hungarian.]

Me: "Neat! Day tripping to Budapest?"

Him: "Yes, visiting a friend."

And so on and so forth, with small talk conversation lasting long enough to get us acquainted, enough to know where we each come from and go to and why, and puncutated with very quick, subtle (unlike my former German encounters) unobtrusive corrections to my horrible grammar, and a chat which was very pleasant and relaxing.

Soon, of course, the conversation took a more interesting turn (one thing that is true about these Germanic tribes is that conversations turn to serious matters--politics, current events, history, etc.-- very quickly. Small talk is not typically of much interest to German speakers, which is a happy coincidence, because nor it is to me). While talking about what Mexico is like and what Austria is like and eventually what the world is like, the gentleman in front of me suddently burst out with what had clearly been simmering for some time, for it seemed to be one of his fundamental life conclusions, brought about by over 70 years of reflection and experience, and it was (or was something like) this:

"All of the world's problems are caused by overpopulation."

I had to find a way not to fall off my chair laughing as soon as I heard that. With the most serious face I could muster, and as politely as possible, I instead asked....

"Er...why do you say that?"

"Well, look at all those poor people having 8, 10 kids. That's no way to live! That's no way to come out of poverty!"

Me: "Er, yes, I suppose that's true."

The gentleman then ranted away at how could people be so ignorant so as to think that by having more children they would somehow improve life for themselves.

Now, Mexico, as you know, is a rather poor country, and up until very recently, but especially in rural areas, the custom was, in fact, to try to have large families. There is, to some extent, some logic to this, which I attempted to explain:

"I think what happens is that in rural communities the view is that the more farmhands are available, the better. Kids are made to work and help out at the farm since they are very young, and obviously the more kids there are, the more help is available. So it does make sense, in a way."

"Yes," said the gentleman, "but with more than one or 2 kids, you cannot send them all to college. It is expensive! How can these farmers think that they can send 8 kids to college, or make enough money to send them off to school. It is unthinkable! So now you have 8 uneducated, unemployable children running around, what do they do when the father dies? How do they get a job and look after themselves? They don't! They end up in the streets, causing all the problems we see now in the world, street violence, drugs, etc."

Clearly, my companion had assumed that it was unquestionable, that the goal for every child born to a family, farmer or not, was to get a college education. Interesting theory, which I did not see the point to discuss (I was afraid I would be unable to remain polite at this one---oftentimes my disagreeing is not as diplomatic as it could be, and I didn't want to risk upsetting this, now turned very passionate, little old gentleman). Nevertheless, the other assumption: that street violence, drug use, poverty, and basically, "all the problems of the world" were caused by uneducated children product of 8 member overpopulated families was just something I could not let go off so easily.

"Well, yes, but take for instance, Europe. Europe's population is declining, yet it has the same problems of drug use and violence that we all know and love. We even see these problems, and even more so, in "rich" countries, like the U.S. Overpopulation, therefore, does not seem to be the probable cause."

"Yes," quoth he. "But Europe and the U.S. have immigrants from poor countries coming in. And these immigrants are coming in because their countries are overpopulated, and therefore poor. Places like Africa and India."

Uh oh. Back to some specious and circular reasoning. It reminded me a bit of arguing with an old friend of mine, that did. How to remain respectful, without pointing out that the reasoning was faulty, that some facts were being intentionally left out, that evidence was being ignored?

"Well, in the case of places like Africa, I believe that the reason some of those countries are poor is not because of overpopulation per se. If you think about it, Africa had been colonized, enslaved, opressed, and exploited by wealthier countries until well into the 20th century. Even after decolonization and the abolition of slavery you still had nasty things like apartheid rearing its ugly head until only a few years ago. And to top it off, after that you ended up with local corrupt governments that have done nothing to improve the lives of the people. I very much highly doubt that this is because Africa suffers from overpopulation, on the contrary. Perhaps this overpopulation is, as I said, a way to try to cope with a situation that is already not quite ideal..."

[Now, all of the above sounds very cogent and well constructed, of course, because I'm writing it several days after it happened. In reality, you have to imagine me trying to say this with my limited German vocabulary and while being interrupted every minute or two by the small grammar "corrections" from my interlocutor. No small feat, but anyway...]

And so on and so forth, but no matter what I said ("There are even plenty of countries that are poor but not overpopulated, take Eastern Europe, for instance"), I could not convince him. At 70, his mind was already made up, and the conversation, at this point, had started to turn a little boring, with him always repeating the same kind of thing.

Now, those of you who know me well know that when conversations start to turn boring for me, I tend to like to spice things up by needling my interlocutor. It is an evil thing to do, because at this point, I'm no longer interested in the conversation per se (it has already revealed to want to go nowhere constructive), but rather in pure mental entertainment: at this point the talk is no longer a friendly exchange of ideas that enable both participants to learn from each other, but simply a way for me to do some simple mental sparring: twisting logic, redifining words, abusing rethoric to support any and whatever viewpoint (no matter how irrational) a typical favorite exercise of mine (as you know). But in this particular case, I decided to surprise my interlocutor with an observation that he would not have expected, taking the risk of it being discovered as impolite, but still striving to preserve the apparent innocence of the statement (and for these kinds of things my trustworthy demeanor always seems to serve quite nicely).

You see, there is one thing that I have noticed about people over the past few years, and it is this: Tell me what that person finds important, tell me what someone values the most, and nine times out of ten, it will be something that that person does not have. Show me someone who thinks that the most important thing in life is "to be happy" or "to pursue happiness", and I'll show you someone who is unhappy. Show me someone who thinks money is important, and I'll show you someone for whom it will never be enough. Show me someone who thinks "love" is the thing worth living for, and I'll show you someone who does not currently have a significant other. It is uncanny, how true this is, and it is after all not really all that surprising: psychology and economics tells us that we will value those things that we find scarce or are difficult to obtain. The people who are genuinely happy and know how to value the things that they already have in abundance are truly rare finds.

But anyway, back to my little old gentleman and "Overpopulation is the source of all problems." By this point, he was ranting on and on about how it was unbelievable that these ignorant overpopulated countries did not have a culture that looked kindly upon birth control, and whose fault was that, the governments', but also the male's, yes, the males were to blame, etc etc etc.

At this point I just nodded and agreed to every single thing he said, until there was a lull in the conversation.

"Say," said I, after a pause, a short, warning peparation for my beat-attack.

"Do you have any kids?" I smiled innocently.

He waved away my question (from which I quickly concluded that the answer, as expected, was "no"), said something more about "overpopulation, think about it", to which I promised I would, and this conversation, at least, ended shortly afterwards.


Anyway, the train ride was long, so that was not the end of our chat (though the overpopulation one, thankfully, had ended just exactly when I had wanted it to). Now it turned instead back to Austria and Mexico, and how those barbarous Mexicans had assasinated Maximilian I, when he had most kindly agreed to go govern them at their request, and how, had they really not wanted him, why not just put him on a ship back to Austria? Was it really necessary, to shoot him with a firing squad? Honestly! Whatever happened to common courtesy!

Again, I had to summon some superhuman strength not to laugh. It seemed very amusing to me, that he just could not see what to any Mexican would be shiningly evident and obvious: no one likes to be invaded. To have a foreigner come to govern your country as an Emperor is the greatest affront to national sovereignty.

I tried to explain.

"But he came at the Mexicans' request!"

"Yes," said I, "but he came at a time of some rather tumultuous times, politically. The Mexicans who requested him was a very small group of monarchists, and what's more, wasn't it Napoleon, who kind of pushed his going there? France had invaded Mexico just a short time before. What I'm trying to say is, he most definitely was not "invited" and most definitely it was not with the backing of the people."

"Well," he continued. "They shouldn't have shot him. If they didn't want him there, they should've just told him to go back home."

[Supressed a chuckle here again. Seriously, have you ever heard of an invader who politely leaves when the invaded country expresses their objections? Honestly!]

"You see," he pressed on, "When I was visiting Mexico City..."

"Oh, you've been there?", I was, to tell the truth, a bit surprised at this.

"Yeah, when I was visiting that Castle on the hill, what's it called? Chapatulec, is it?"

"Chapultepec," said I.

"Yes, anyway, the guide was telling us with great relish, veritable glee, of how the Mexicans had executed this tyrant. And he wasn't a tyrant at all, he was just someone who was offered this governorship, accepted in good faith, and look what happened to him. She didn't know I was Austrian, so when I tried to explain this to her, that he came in good faith, she kept telling me what you are saying, but how can they be so ignorant of history, not to know that he was invited, how could he not be welcomed, when he came at the Mexican's request?"

And here followed a side-rant about how tourist guides should be licensed, like they are in Europe, where they have to take a test, to prove they are knowledgeable in the history of the places that they are guiding tours in.

Again, I had to struggle not to laugh, and attempted to calmly explain.

"I believe it is not, really, that she was not well-versed in Mexican history. What happens, you see, is that, like in many countries, in Mexico, the history books in public schools are written by the government. The government, just like most other countries', has an interest in fostering a certain...pride in one's nation. Therefore, and consistent with 200 years of Mexican foreign policy, a sense of 'one does not meddle in the internal affairs of other countries' is inculcated into the Mexican mind from an early age, since these books are distributed starting in Elementary school. Mexicans literally bristle at the thought of having someone else meddle in how they should run their country. Maximillian's arrival, you see, was an unabashed affront on this Mexican pride, and still is. It is understandable, that they would continue to portray him as a tyrannical invader who well-deserved what he got. And he did, in a way, for he should've informed himself a little bit better as to what the political and social realities were of the country he was supposed to govern..."

But of course, I could make no headway on the view that: "Still, they should not have shot him. That is barbaric. They should've just put him on a ship back. What's more, they should be thankful, He built this beautiful Castle on the Hill, what other beautiful monuments are there in Mexico City? None! Tyrant, yeah right, but you Mexicans got this beautiful castle which you got to keep."

I smiled. "You are right, of course," said I.

The conversation then changed, of course, after I had thus purposely killed it. But amusement was not over, for now it turned to the famous headdress of Moctezuma II, which, as you know, is exhibited in the Museum für Völkerunde (Ethnology Museum) of Vienna, and which I, in spite of having passed by several times, purposely did not visit, because I knew it would make me bristle to despair seeing this very precious Aztec headdress exhibited there.

"Take that headdress of Moctezuma. Did you know, that just a few years ago, a Mexican delegation came to Vienna, to demand it be returned?"

I had heard something like that.

"Well, guess what the Austrians said."

"Clearly they said no, since the headdress is still not where it should be." (That is, in the National Anthropology Museum of Mexico City, where a copy is displayed, with a little caption indicating that the original"taken" Vienna).

"Where it should be? It is the property of Austria. Either way, the Austrians first said, 'O.K., we'll give it back, but in return you give us all of those things that Maximilian took to Mexico from his home here in Vienna', and the Mexicans said 'no'."

"Well," said I "the things that Maximilian took to Mexico should remain in Mexico, because they would not have been purposely taken there if he wanted them to stay in Vienna. The headdress, on the other hand, was not taken by its owner to Vienna, it just somehow..."appeared" here under questionable circumstances, and ..."

"No, it doesn't work that way. We Austrians, we were willing to give the headdress back, but what, you just want handouts like that? What do we get in return? It is only fair, that we get what belongs to us back, otherwise, no deal. Besides, do you think that headdress would've been so well-preserved if it had remained in Mexico? You should be thankful, because here you can see it, it is well taken care of, if it had remained in Mexico by now it would've been long gone."

"Of course," capitulated I, in words only, again.

"Of course," said he.

I smile every time I remember this train ride. Irony is....a very curious thing.


Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Budapest, Day 3.

Strolled over to Castle Hill in Buda this morning and started the day with a visit to the Hungarian National Gallery and its excelent collection of 19th century Hungarian Painters (entrance is, can you believe it? Free!), and where I spotted, of all things, a painting that someone who once knew me well has always claimed looks very much like me (and the whole collection is digitized on the website so if you have the patience and curiosity go ahead and see if you can figure out which one it is!).

I also saw, of course, lots of other very neat works (beautiful paintings spanning a full wall, for instance), and one, in particular, which I found very poignant: Gyula Derkovits' "For Bread (Terror)".

But anyway, the point is, very nice exhibit. Do not skip it if you visit Budapest.

After hanging out at the museum I headed over to the subterranean caves/limestone cellars, which the city of Buda has like many other medieval cities (i.e. Provins), but which are now made into a kind of interesting exhibit/fun game and called "The Labyrinth of Buda". Instead of making the visit a historic visit along the cellars, the Hungarians decided to make it a kind of entertainment attraction, for they lighted it in small but very warm, yellow lights, scattered about several mystic-like statues ( a la Olmec heads or Easter Island idols), bathed the facilities in some very eerie music, and even added a...can you believe this? A wine fountain.

Ha ha ha ha! Yeah, I was wondering where that vinegary smell was coming from. I twisted a corner, and I see a stone fountain covered up in vines spouting blood-red water, which it was not, in fact, as closer inspection revealed.

Get a load of that, you wine weenie freaks. Would be the talk of your next party if you popped one up on your balcony, eh? ;)

Anyway, this "Labyrinth" tried to make a statement, towards the end, about modern man, "homo consumensis", they called him comically, by showing the remains of the 20th century as if they were fossils, like someone from the future might see them, imprints, they called them, outlines cast in stone (or in this case plaster made to look like stone) of computers, cell phones, TV antennas. And then, they had quotes of what previous visitors had said, when reflecting upon what would remain after we were long gone---imprints such as these, perhaps. The comments were very sagacious and touching, for instance:

"These imprints, how ironic that they would be immaterial traces of the material."


"Humanity, unrestrained, advances towards....nothing."

and things like that.

Now, the whole of the labyrinth was organized into smaller sections, sub-labyrinths, each with their own theme, a bit like that garden at the Quinta de la Regaleira that I told you about when I was back in Portugal. One of these (apart from the "homo consumensis" one and the wine fountain one whose name I can't remember) was the "Labyrinth of Courage", where you enter in a chamber in complete darkness and you walk and find your way by following a cord that you grasp with your right hand.

If you wait for the visitors ahead of you to exit before entering, and with no visitors behind you, the effect of absolute darkness and silence is strong, not without a small trace of disquietude. But what I realized in those 10 minutes of darkness, was that while surely the roots of this unavoidable, faraway pang of fear must be different for everyone who visits (some may fear the unknown, others may fear what is lurking at the next corner, a tall person may fear bumping his head on the next rock or low ceiling of the chamber, etc), I realized, that without having anyone behind or in front of me, like the backpacker couples or the families with children that I had passed in other sections of the cellars, who entered this "dark chamber to test one's courage" laughing and joking to lighten up the inevitable trepidation or maybe holding on to each other in loving solidarity, mine, my faraway pang of apprehension made infinitely many times more distressing by the darkness and the silence, that unease that was only mine and no one else's, came from the resulting irremediable sense of....loneliness.


Towards the exit, there was a map of the whole Labyrinth cellars, and I looked for the so-called "Labyrinth of Love", the only one I seemed to have missed in my wanderings, on the map. But though the legend on the map had this Labyrinth written in big letters, it did not show up anywhere on the map itself. After scrutinizing the map carefully, still not finding it, and finally spotting my location near one of the exits, I finally saw a correspondingly-labelled arrow, pointing towards the edge of the map, through the exit out of the labyrinth structure and into the "real world": The "Labyrinth of Love" outside!


I gotta hand it to them. These Hungarians have a very sophisticated....peculiar, but rather neat, sense of humor.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Budapest, Day 2.

A happy day.

Budapest is a city that grows on you (one even starts to get used to the darker than usual streets eventually).

Today, being sunny and a Monday, there were more people on the streets than in the past two days: the city was vibrant and cheerful.

After changing rooms from the little old lady's guesthouse to a more youthful and social (and cheaper!) backpacker's hostel (which was very clean, very pleasant, and not too many people, plus, free internet!), I ran a couple of errands (had to buy new SIM card for mobile phone) and then finally wandered into the fantastic, beautifully decorated and delicious Central Cellar Restaurant and Wine Bar (1052 Budapest Vàci u. 11/a). I just had to rave about this fantastic place with fabulous decor and a delicious, not particularly expensive meal that started with a wonderful Hungarian Goulash soup that tasted a little bit like it was made with chipotle chiles, which was a bit weird and nostalgic (it reminded me a lot of my home country of Mexico), but very, very good.

After an incredibly delicious meal I started wandering eastwards along Andrassy Utca, one of the swanky boulevards of Budapest, heading towards City Park, when in my wanderings along a pretty side-street I stumbled upon the Hungarian Royal Academy of Music (though "stumbled" is perhaps not quite accurate, since when I fist heard the sounds of someone--not one, but two or three people--practicing concert-grade sequences, most definitely not your typical boring old music student excercise, on a concert-grand piano wafting from a window somewhere, my feet instinctively followed, to stop eventually at the entrance of this renowned institution), founded by no less than Franz Liszt himself.

Well, what was my surprise and nothing less than ecstasy when I discovered upon entering the building that the academy was currently hosting the 41st International Liszt-Bartók Piano Competition, with the final round to start in half an hour (can you believe it, Ian!?!!). I almost melted with joy, then, upon being told that the day's ticket cost only 1,000 Florints (that's approximately 5 bucks!), which gave you access to the full day of competition, starting at 3 p.m. and ending at 8 p.m., with 45 minutes per contestant with 15 minute breaks in-between, to come and go as you pleased throughout the day.

This was a dream come true! I had never seen a piano competition of this kind of repute and high caliber before, so of course I did not hesistate even a microsecond to cancel all my previous plans for the afternoon and settle myself for a very promising, terrific musical picnic. Oh, what luck! (And since I was half an hour early and there was general seating, I even got my first choice spot on the 3rd row just to the left of the piano, just like is should be, exactly like I wanted, for no spot could've been better). Oooh, lordy. This was absolute, perfect, bliss.

Anyway, as I waited around for things to start and glanced behind me to look at the audience, I noticed it was significantly "left-seating" biassed: 90% of the public had chosen seats on the left side. :). And, judging from the expressions on faces during parts of the performance, the tensing of the fingers of hands previously resting impassively in one's lap at key moments, the intent, concentrated, piercing look of the people in the audience, I concluded, too, that at least that percentage of it, was also composed of musicians.

There was a 2 hour break after the third performer (his name was Bernard Olivier, who performed the Liszt Sonata in B minor with a depth and beauty I had never heard anyone, not even on CD, play like before, so much so that it even brought tears to my eyes, so sublime that performance was. Oh, how wonderful!), so I headed over to the nearby (or rather, more or less nearby) City Park, which was of interest because it houses one of the biggest public baths in the city, and are just exactly like one imagines the Roman baths were way back when. It was kinda cool.

On my way back I passed by a bunch of older gentlemen playing, in true Eastern European tradition, chess, of all things, and of course I couldn't resist hanging out there for a while and observing a few of the games. It was not long before one of the gentlemen started a conversation with me, in Spanish, of all things (he had frequently visited Mexico and was glad to switch to Spanish from English when he found out I was from there), and, after comparing a bit what Hungarians are like and what Mexicans are like (we concluded they are very similar, the national character of both those countries is rather cheerful and light-hearted, and even our food has some similar features), the conversation turned back towards chess:

Me: "Say, is it true what I've heard, that kids here in Hungary have to take compulsory chess lessons in elementary school starting from 5th grade?"

(I had heard this from my Hungarian High-School Physics teacher, and had concluded, way back then, that were I to run the world I would make this subject a compulsory part of elementary-school education indeed. It is a wonderful way to teach people how to think through the consequences of their actions, to consider all possible scenarios and possibilities before making decisions, and to learn how to see a problem from your opponent's point of view--fundamental skills to have if you want to grow up to be someone who knows how to think and decide for yourself [and if you want to hear more about this and what subjects I think should be taught in schools apart from this one and instead of which others, all you need to do is trigger-topic me sometime]).

Older Hungarian gentleman: "Well, sort of. It is not compulsory, but it is an elective, and mostly only boys choose it."

Me (a bit surprised): "Huh. I see. Girls don't like it, or what?", I wondered.

Hungarian gentleman: "Well, it's not just that, here in Hungary a bit like in Mexico, I guess, we tend to think that maybe women ought to learn how to cook and take care of the home, first."

"I see..." said I. I was all too familiar with these kinds of attitudes, unfortunately, having encountered a lot of that myself back when I was younger, given that I didn't tend to exhibit your typical, boring, "girls are supposed to do it this way" type of interests.

"Say," said I, after a while, "Judit Polgar, right? She's Hungarian, isn't she?"

(For those of you not too familiar with these circles, Judit Polgar is the best female chess player in the world, and the 16th best player overall, having attained the Grandmaster title at only 15, and she's only 30 years old now! Not only that, but her sisters Zsusa and Zsofia are no chess weenies themselves...)

Hungarian gentleman (not quite knowing where I was getting at, beaming with pride): "Yes, she is!"

Me: " you think Judit Polgar knows how to cook?"

This took the gentleman a bit by surprise. He was so taken aback by this, in fact, that for a while he stared at me not quite knowing what to say, until I smiled broadly to make it clear it was just a joke. He relaxed and laughed then, and I with him, as he turned around to the rest of the gentlemen leaning over their chessboards, and repeated, in Hungarian, what I had said, whether Judit Polgar knows how to cook, which received some good-natured chuckles.

"Nah," he said finally. "She makes enough money being a chess champion. She doesn't need to know how to cook, she can just hire someone to do it for her."


So it goes.

It was amusing, though, and the relaxing chat, the stroll through the park and the kids on skateboards and bikes practicing tricks (they were really good) on the plazas, the sublimely beautiful music, the weather, the charmingly sunny city and the nice meal, the good luck and general pleasantness of the day's events, in other words, all contributed to make today into one of the happiest I have had in a very long while.