Five countries later, 207kms walked, 300k steps trod, and an extra 5lbs gained (I’m guessing), my Eastern European trip is done.
In trying to give a flavour of what we got up to, I left a whole lot of fun out. In each city we compiled lists of recommendations from friends and guidebooks and checked them all off.
We ate at great restaurants like the one I described in Split and awful ones I didn’t, like the tourist trap called N’Joy (we should have guessed from the name) in Cappadocia that fed us a kind of Turkish quesadilla but with no discernible filling for my friend’s cheese version and crumbly dried dog food in mine.
We met some unimpressed, stoic, quasi-angry people in Croatia, the first of whom was a waiter in the Zagreb airport hotel who impatiently chastised my perfect mother for stacking glasses on plates to help with bussing the table, since “the plates go to the kitchen and the glasses to the bar!” We met lovely warm, friendly, helpful people…everywhere else.
We took tours and explored on our own; we took buses across countries and planes between them, mostly. We walked. A lot. And followed only one umbrellaed tour guide, which we appreciated as it provided a molecule of shade on a hot day in Ephesus.
We remembered to have Kleenex with us for all the toilet-paper-free bathrooms and generally had change in local currency to use the toilets. The exception was on the 7-hr bus ride from Budapest to Krakow. We stopped at the Slovakian-Polish border after four hours, with bursting bladders — a bus-load of people faced with a coin-operated turnstile that accepted Euro cents or Polish zloties. The machine rejected my Euro coins so we trooped over to the money exchange in the gas station. But that took some effort to get the right coin denomination back. The guy ahead of us in line, now zloty-rich, offered to pay for us to pee. But by then our fellow frustrated bus passengers had managed to jam the coin machine. We looked at each other nonplussed then jumped the turnstile. I crawled through the equivalent of a doggie door instead because I foolishly thought that would be more graceful. In the process, I re-opened the scab on my knee from when I fell on the rooftop of Budapest’s Spice Market, moments after standing on top of the world and face-planted into our good-looking guide’s crotch. See? The things I didn’t tell you.
We hired amazing cab drivers to be our guides, and avoided the one in Zadar, whose business card had the charming logo and contact info of his Croatian girlie club on the flip side. Although that would have made an awesome story.
I didn’t tell you when Mom and I pooh-pooh the organized tour to Montenegro from Dubrovnik, opting for public transit instead. Our bus got caught up in the border crossing at Bosnia-Herzegovina and arrived two hours late. Time enough only to eat uninspired fast food at the bus station out of view of the beautiful UNESCO-town before having to get back on the bus to head home. Nice bus ride, though.
We went to castles and swam at beaches. We rode the metro and walked across bridges. We took boat tours in every city with water, except Krakow. There we saw a salt mine with steps, bricks and cobblestones made out of rock salt, as well as a salt Pope John Paul II and a salt Last Supper.
We learned six key phrases in four languages: hi/bye, please/thanks, yes/no, and learned that you can turn any phrase into something English. Just as “buy a donkey” means thank you in South Africa, “choke a horse” sounds remarkably like “very nice” in Turkish.
I learned that any attempt at a joke in a foreign language wins you points. Mine was saying “bad dog” to a stray canine in Turkish. It sounds like “buu-uuk eat” and cracked us up all out of proportion. Must have been in the delivery.
And I’ve leaned a lot about myself:
The number of times I say “I’m good” instead of “No, thanks,” which is not helpful in foreign countries.
How much I don’t like hot weather; it makes me grumpy (sorry mom and sis). Not fond of 2-degree weather in Poland either but I can keep my sense of humour.
There is always a fancier section on a plane than the one you are in. In Lufthansa, First Class is set off from Business Class by a space-age door-like curtain instead of a regular accordion curtain, and those fancier pants people get macadamia nuts instead of cashews. Although in Business Class the flight attendant correctly determined the wine I was drinking by holding it up to the light instead of asking me. I also learned a credit card opens the door to business class. That’s almost free, right?
Most of all, I learned again how small the world is:
…From the family and friends I travelled with (huge thanks to them for the great times)
…to the old friends I met unexpectedly abroad (in Croatia and on the plane in Munich)
…and the new ones I met on the road (cab drivers and tour guides alike)
…as well as those who emailed from home and around the world as they work and live in countless other countries
…and the one I texted on safari in Tanzania from a catamaran in Croatia.
I am truly lucky to have friends and family no matter where I go even if they are simply back home at the end of an email. Now I just have to pay more attention to the cab drivers in Vancouver. I had good success with the ones over here.