Saturday, April 28, 2012

I've just seen two bits of life that I envy in two different ways.

First I stayed with a couch surfer named David in a mountain town in Switzerland. (I posted pictures last time.) Wonderful solitude! This picturesque valley, little Swiss houses, big Swiss mountains. He said "Do you like deer? They come out at night and hang out over there." (pointing to some land literally next to his house)

Last night in Breno, Italy, and more so tonight in Modena: wonderful socializing! They both have cobblestone old city centers, and both were full of people. Especially tonight; it felt like a grand festival, but I'm pretty sure it's just another Saturday night. Perfect 70 degree weather, restaurants and cafes with outdoor seating. Beautiful people out, y'know, being beautiful.

Italian city centers are what we lost when we moved to car-centric suburbs, and Swiss mountain towns are what we never quite gained.

Here's one bit of life I don't envy: slogging through flat bits of Italy and getting lost a lot. I went 200km in the right direction today; pity that I also went 100km in the wrong direction. Well, I guess not all the roads can be Swiss and amazing. (I think I may be spoiled for the rest of the trip. It's hard to compete with riding through the Alps.)

Thursday, April 26, 2012

It's like the Kashmir/Nainital/Darjeeling of Europe

Zurich. I stayed with Shauna and Steve, whom I knew from Google Seattle. Shauna's now working at Google Zurich. This was fun. I like how traveling allows you to visit people you might not have known super well, and you get to know them better, just because you are in that city. Dear everyone who I only kind of know: come visit me in Pittsburgh, let's do this thing in reverse.

Zurich is so pretty. There's only occasional graffiti. There was a map store and comic shops, and a pretty nice art museum with some things that I liked. I had an awesome cup of pour over Panamanian coffee at a place called Henrici.

Another new record: that coffee cost $7.70. This is the most expensive city in the world. Restaurants will run you about $30; even a kebab or falafel is over $10. I don't want to tell you how much I spent getting an oil change and a brake pad replaced. On the other hand, walking up to the Uetliberg (where I took the picture above) was free. Cooking meals with Shauna, Steve, and their roommate Alena was also cheap. Once we did fondue. (we "fondid"?)

I biked through all of this. I wish I had a helmet cam so I could not constantly be thinking "should I stop and take a picture here?" It is a strange feeling, wanting to capture everything; you know you can never capture everything! I was riding towards the Alps over the Zurichsee all day and I might never again have those visual glimpses. It's like food. But like food, it's important to remember that even though it is fleeting, it is very nice to have these sights/foods.

Biking was much warmer today, but quite windy! Always a new challenge. Tonight I am staying here. Couchsurfing with a cool fellow named David. CS has been awesome in Europe; there are a lot of hosts and I've gotten along with them pretty well.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Germany -> Austria -> Liechtenstein -> Switzerland

Did you ever play Moto Racer? When you set a record, it would say in a deep ad-salesman voice "New Record!" Now, I'm not going to be setting any speed records on this bike, but 4 countries in one day is a pretty good one, I think.

It was a long day! 9am-7pm, all told. I was a little worried that I wouldn't even make it. Luckily, we are at such high altitude (same as Seattle) that it stays light approximately forever.

It was a beautiful day! Austrian valleys, then Austrian ski resorts, then Liechtensteiner, um, nothing, then Swiss hills again until the uneventful but rather pretty way in to Zurich.

I'm here in Zurich today and tomorrow, and then will head south towards Italy. (if I can find a mountain pass that's open. Hah!)

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Things I learned from one day of scootering

1. It's cold! I guess I'm not used to 50 degrees with constant 35mph winds, because it is super freezing. When I ride for like a half hour without wearing all of my layers, I get this deep shivering cold and it takes a couple hours after going inside before I warmed up.

2. Bikers know what they're doing. The leather gear is not just to look cool; it helps with the insane coldness. (perhaps more importantly, it also helps in accidents.) Same with the gloves and ankle protectors and neck warmer and all the other things you might see bikers wearing. When I think about scootering in everyday life, this is a little annoying; "suiting up" adds friction. I mean, if it takes 30 minutes to bike somewhere and 15 to scooter there, but you have to spend 5 minutes on each end changing clothes, you've lost most of your time advantage.

3. Getting out of Munich is nuts. Look at this:

Munich's streets are a maze of twisty passages, all alike, and the street names even change every 500 feet. It's a lovely city to get around on public transit, and I'm sure even a bicycle wouldn't be too mad, but it is not made for driving. (nevertheless, I still maintain that this is a good thing.)

4. It is really not hard. The first hour I was riding, I was glad I got a scooter, because I didn't think I could manage the gear shifting, but I think I could now. (the question is: do I want to? it sort of feels like busy work, unless you're really into the high-performance thing, which again I am not.) Anyway, scootering is easy and I'm quite comfortable with it.

5. It is a lot of fun.

I ended up at Füssen, near the famous castle of Neuschwanstein.

Neuschwanstein was built by King Ludwig II of Bavaria. He started it when he was 24. He wanted it to be, y'know, a real medieval castle (unlike the actual medieval castle that was crumbling in that spot). So he commissioned this whole thing to look like an 11th-century castle, but bigger and grander and decorated with scenes of knights and kings and fair maidens etc from Wagner operas, because he sweated Wagner pretty hard.

What a champ. This is pretty much equivalent to me, at my age, saying "I like Lord of the Rings. I want to build Minas Tirith. And I like Harry Potter too, so throw in a Quidditch field." It's totally nuts, but hey, now this exists; if he were sensible (or not a rich king) he'd have some house that's not very noteworthy at all. I've been reading Steve Jobs's bio too, and wondering if it's bad to be a supreme dictator after all.

Anyway, things are going well. Today the weather was bad so I stuck around an extra day, and tomorrow it's off through some serious Alps to Zurich.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Munich: why are you so nice

Everything is shiny and clean. They still have buildings with Gothic Germanic letters advertising "Biergarten" and "Gaststätte" unironically. Everything is kind of expensive but not out of control, especially beer. I found a nice outdoor market and a board game store, just walking around. Everything works. The public transportation is out-of-control good. Even so, if you have a motorbike, you can park it on the sidewalk. It doesn't interfere with the bicyclists because they have their own separate sidewalk. There are even a lot of couch surfers. In the utopian version of the future, every city looks like this.

But I don't get why everyone is so excited about this "rat house".

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Back on two wheels!

There's a Modest Mouse lyric that goes "One time out of ten, everything goes perfect for us all." I don't feel like I've suffered through the other nine yet, but here is one of those ones.

I go to Germany preparing to do all of the following things:
- buy a bike
- buy insurance
- register the bike
- get license plates made for the bike
- get a helmet
- get gloves and some sort of protective jacket or at least something warm
- figure out if the bike is in good shape or not
- withdraw about a thousand Euros (easier said than done; my bank limit for the ATM is about $500 ~= 380 Euros/day)

And I contact the local Horizons Unlimited group for direction in doing the above, and a guy named John responds and says "want to just borrow my bike?"

What! In one fell swoop, almost all of those problems are solved. Even the problem of selling it afterwards as well. He's got insurance and I don't need to do any registration things, he's got an extra helmet, gloves, leather jacket/pants I can borrow, helped me look over the bike and told me what's up with it, no worries. He just got back from a round-the-world trip of his own and he's got this extra bike, so he wants to help enable my epic trip.

Aprilia Leonardo 125 from 1997. Don't worry, Dad, I'll be mostly mowing lawns with it :D Plus, this guy got around Europe on a 125cc scooter, so at least I'm not the first.

Yep, that's its license plate.

"Hey, who's that guy?" "Which guy?" "The one who looks like a total badass."

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

A couple more thoughts about Bulgaria

First, if Western Europe is 1 and India is 10, Bulgaria is about 2. It's the same basic way of life.

It's a little poorer and a little pessimistic. Low on jobs and has some corruption. This can be very depressing. In the US, I've always thought "if there were no jobs, I'd start a business." Easier said than done, sure, but much easier said than done when entrepreneurship isn't woven into the walls of your country's culture.

The relationship between men and women is not great. It's kind of like America 50 years ago maybe, or India in 20 years. Men can do whatever they want, women are supposed to cook and clean and care for kids (and maybe hold down a job too). I'm sure it's subtler than that, but the main feature I could figure out about gender relations is just this pretty much straight up gradient of equality across different places. Oh, it's better in the city than in the villages too.

This week, I ate a lot better than I do in the states. I don't mean "healthier", in the modern messed up Western sense, I just mean better. The family I stayed with grew a lot of their own vegetables, got cheese and meat from fresh local etc vendors, started each meal with a big salad, distilled their own rakia. Drank a lot of milk, and by "milk" I mean "fresh actual real milk from real cows, mildly fermented like yogurt." CAFOs/factory farms are not part of their life.

The food's delicious too. Meals started with salad and cheese and olives, and then there would be some main dish, with some meat or something. Really good stuffed peppers, chicken, egg dishes, soups. Banitsa. It's not quite "fresh ingredients minimally processed" but it's closer to that than "throw everything into a big curry stew". There's some weird stuff (soup made from cow stomach, slices of pork fat), but by and large it was all pretty normal Western-style food with really good ingredients.

Travel-wise, something feels not quite right, and I think it's homesickness. So it goes. Now I'm in Austria (for a few hours) and everything about this place is beautiful, and tomorrow morning I'll be in Munich and (to paraphrase Churchill) I'll be less homesick but this Alpine region will still be pretty.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Happy Easter, Bulgarian-style!

I happened to be around while my couchsurfing hosts were heading to their old village for the Easter weekend. So they invited me to go with them. (Of course, right? You just invite random strangers to go with you on holidays, right? Bulgaria, Couchsurfing, and this fine family are so kind.)
Stoyanka, Petar, and Vesi

Their village (where Petar's parents live) is called Morava. Here is how it looks.

Morava is small and shrinking. Very pretty. I guess everyone is moving to the cities, so the population is aging and dying. On the other hand, property is cheap! You can get the former biggest house in the village and its land for 7000 American bones. I guess the English fellow who moved in next to Petar's parents has figured this out. Also, Hemingway was here once.
(train station reconstructed to film a movie about Hemingway)

Root cellar. This is when it's empty. So many jars.

We went to Svishtov also, where Petar went to school. Svishtov, a small town on the Danube, is a site of many Bulgarian firsts. It's nice.

Oh and there's Roman ruins too.

So, Easter! Celebrations? Churchgoing? Nah. I guess Bulgaria is pretty atheist these days, and this family is no exception. We did a little gardening, touristing around Svishtov, reading books, looking for mushrooms, eating all sorts of good things and drinking Rakia (fruit brandy/schnapps). Low key time but super interesting. Petar and Stoyanka, if you're reading, thanks again for taking me!

At one point, they showed me a family tree, on a couple sheets of paper. But that was not the full tree; it only went back a couple generations. "Do you want to see the full tree?" SUPER YES:

On the way back, we stopped by Veliko Tarnovo, the old capital from the 1100's-1300's, before the Ottomans moved in.

And that is why I've been off the internet for four days! Okay, tomorrow I'm flying to Munich, to try this motorcycle-buying thing over again.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Yikes bikes.

Short version: It turns out, if you don't have a Bulgarian passport, it is "not possible" to buy a motorcycle in Bulgaria and have it registered in your name. I might fly to Germany and buy a bike there instead.

Long version: I woke up early today to head down to the KAT, which is the Bulgarian DMV. I don't know why I thought this would be anything other than a Kafka-Brazil-FRRO nightmare! I wandered around about a hundred different desks with numbers, asking people who looked official as well as people who didn't, "Govorite le angliski?" ("do you speak English?") and then when they said no, "uhh, um, motoziklet registratiya?" and then getting pointed in the vague direction of another 10 desks. Eventually I had to leave to meet my motorcycling friend Ilian.

After we examined some choices last night, today he took me to a dealer who was selling a BMW F650. Now, before you look at the BMW name and think me a rich jagoff, or look at big number and think me a fool, this is a pretty reasonable choice. It was in good shape (Ilian thought), and cost about $2000, but the same dealer had a bunch of scooters, so I inquired about those as well. Found a Peugeot 250cc for $1800. But then I found out about the registration issue. Well, I'd read it on the internet before, but everyone I'd talked to (until now) seemed to think there'd be a way to get the registration done.

I kind of don't want to deal with about three issues at once: I'm new to bikes, new to paperwork required for bikes, and new to getting things done in Eastern Europe. The worst case in the last two is that I'm out about $2000 (if I can't sell the bike) and I have a bike that I have to get rid of somehow; the worst case in the first one is that I crash and die. These are all pretty bad. Let's deal with only two of them.

New plan (I think): head to Germany, buy a bike with "export plates" which means I can register it for 3 months and sell it anywhere; there's an additional cost (still not sure how much, but somewhere in the hundreds of euros counting insurance) but at least it's rather by-the-book.

Funny side note: when I was waiting to meet Ilian, I saw another guy who looked like him from behind, so I walked up and said "Hey, how's it going?" and we had an awkward half second eye contact and he started walking with me, surreptitiously shaking my hand and saying under his breath "Hallo. Ivan." By this point I had realized it wasn't Ilian and sort of stopped and said sorry. Did I just walk into the middle of something?

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

So far, Sofia, so good

The "Sofia" chapter of this story is not done, but now's as good a time as any to upload some photos.

I landed in Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria, on Monday. Went to the home of my Couchsurfing hosts Petar and Stoyanka, in Lyulin, which is a district a few km from the center of Sofia. It looks a little like this:

Looks so Soviet-era! Big concrete block buildings as far as the eye can see! What the hell, communism. The apartments are small and the buildings look kind of worn-down. On the upside, once you know where you're going, it's not bad. It's dense, anyway, so there are little squares with places to eat and supermarkets and stuff, and there are a lot of people walking around. Beats US suburbs in that sense. Still, it's not really a "neighborhood" or a "suburb"; more like a "housing complex."

Petar and Stoyanka (and their young daughter Vesi, and Stoyanka's mother) are great hosts. They've really made me feel at home here, even though I sort of landed with no idea what to do besides a vague mission to buy a motorcycle and not much of a notion of how to do that. I've met another fellow, Ilian, who may be able to help with the motorcycle, and in the meantime, Petar and Stoyanka have supplied me with a room and lots of food, even in their small apartment. So generous!

The main part of Sofia, however, is pretty:

(the Free Sofia Tour came highly recommended. it was pretty good.)

It's an old place: Roman, medieval, Ottoman-Turk era, communist-era, and modern.

Fun Fact #1. In communist times, there was one big "department store" that sold everything. Foods like sugar, appliances, etc. I guess it used to be a big deal if you lived out in the country to come into the city and buy something. Anything! There weren't things all over the place!

Fun Fact #2. After communist times, they tore down all the Lenin statues, which left them with empty spaces, so they were trying to fill them. They came up with this lady on a pedestal in the right of this photo (right under the traffic light):

Why? Because she's St. Sophia. This is such a mess:
- St. Sophia was Italian, not even a little bit Bulgarian
- the city of Sofia is named after its Hagia Sofia church (not to be confused with the one in Istanbul), not St. Sophia, because she's not even a little bit Bulgarian
- St. Sophia became a saint because the Romans murdered her three daughters when they wouldn't convert to Roman pagan ways and she died of grief; this is not the triumphant statue you want above your city
- they put a bird on her left arm and some leafy thing in her right hand; the leafy thing symbolizes victory (the opposite of St. Sophia) and the bird is some other pagan symbol (which annoyed Christians)
- the Christians were further angered that she shows a bit too much cleavage.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Hello from Bulgaria!

I've made it another halfway around the world. Sofia, Bulgaria. Adventure Part 1 completed, Adventure Part 2 just beginning. Starting here in Sofia, I'll head around Bulgaria and some of the former Yugoslavia countries, scoot North to Poland, Ukraine, Czech, then cross through Germany to the Netherlands. I leave from Amsterdam on July 5.

The guiding principles for Adventure Part 2 are:
1. Go where my friends are
2. Go where my friends have suggested I go
3. Go to Ukraine for a little bit at least
4. Go where people might appreciate the tourism

All that said, I am much less prepared for Adventure Part 2. I hardly read up on history or language or anything. Given my tendency towards eggheadedness, maybe a bit of winging it would do me some good.