What Was Your Favorite Thing?

Today marks four weeks since we’ve been home. The recent lack of posts might suggest we’ve fallen off the face of the Earth, but actually we’ve been continuing to travel. Two days after flying from Reykjavik to Washington, D.C., we were back in the air again. We spent Columbus Day weekend in St. Louis, attending my cousin’s wedding. It was our first time in Missouri, so we did a bit of sightseeing, too: we visited the St. Louis  Art Museum and the St. Louis Zoo. Both were great.

Penguins, St. Louis Zoo

Because we haven't seen enough penguins yet..

Then we came back to DC, spent one more day, and headed down to Richmond for two days before going to Charlottesville, VA, for another wedding. Within ten days of returning home, we had already seen most of our family and friends.

 

It’s been fun to see all the people we missed so much, but it can be hard to answer “The Questions.” You know the ones: “Where did you go?” “What was your favorite thing?” “What are you going to do now?”

As for the first one, I just refer people to this blog. The third one is deceptively simple: Find a job. A few people continue to ask, “Doing what?” But most people seem content to leave it at that, which is good, because I haven’t the foggiest. I don’t believe this is the kind of economic climate where I can afford to be too picky. I want to do something international, and DC has got heaps of options in that department, so I know I’ll find something I like.

The second question is the one that really gets me. I want to give a short, snappy answer, but the truth is I just don’t have a favorite thing. I can’t even name a couple of favorite things. We used to get this question on the road as well. On meeting us and hearing we’d been traveling the world, our new friends (usually couchsurfing hosts) would invariably ask us where our favorite place was. Our policy was to always name the country we were in at that very moment. This often worked, but now that we’re home, it doesn’t. So what to say?

I can name a couple of countries that were particularly special to me—but the reasons varied. I loved Myanmar because the people we met were so friendly and kind, but that depends on who you meet. I find China endlessly fascinating and have read a lot about it, so I was predisposed to like it. But five years ago, on my first trip there, I hated it. China didn’t change that much—I did. I thought New Zealand and Iceland had the most spectacular scenery, but that’s probably because I’m from the East Coast of the US and am not used to seeing volcanic landscapes. We had an all-around great time in Spain, aided by Bob’s excellent Spanish skills. Someone who did not speak Spanish would have a completely different experience. What I’m trying to say is, your mileage may vary.

Iceland, wow

And if you were used to seeing this, the East Coast might be fascinating

Much depends on your previous experiences: where you’ve been before, what you’ve read, seen pictures of, or heard about. I think of each experience as building on the previous; not as a collection of separate activities. Studying ancient China made visiting Xi’an much more interesting. Seeing the Hindu temple of Prambanan primed me for visiting Angkor Wat. Conversely, after visiting several well-curated European palaces, the Palais du Papes was a bit of a letdown. But we met a Canadian guy (who had not traveled much before) who loved it.

A word about expectations: some of the most fabulous places we visited were the ones we had done no planning for. And I think that had a lot to do with it. We didn’t have a chance to raise our expectations too high. On the other hand, I hate arriving in a place and knowing nothing about it; so it’s a fine line.

It works the other way too. While there certainly were some places I disliked more than others, it depended on several different factors. Most places are, to some extent, interesting; but not always to every person at every stage in their lives. Lijiang, China, would’ve been a charming little city if it hadn’t been so crowded. I don’t have very fond memories of Airlie Beach, Australia, because it rained the whole time we were there. And to me, Salzburg just wasn’t that great. This is completely unfair, of course. Any of those places might be someone else’s favorite spot. But neither one of us is right or wrong. And after looking back on my pictures, I noticed something funny. The brain has a convenient way of forgetting unpleasant experiences, and my impressions of some places have changed for the better. If I can’t trust my perception on what’s good and what’s not, no one else should either. It’s more important to travel to the places you’re interested in. Don’t feel guilty if you don’t like something. I’ve read the book “1000 Places To See Before You Die,” and I respectfully disagree with some of their choices, because the authors, like every other human on earth, are biased.

So no; I can’t say where my favorite place was. It’s all too subjective. If you’re dying to know what I liked and disliked, please ask, but it’s easier for me to choose my favorite spots by country and category (which I have kind of tried to do, through the “Three Favorite Things” posts.) But forget about my favorite things: what are yours?

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A Real Bavarian Beer Festival

We went to Munich “one month too early,” as one traveler we met put it. He was backpacking around Europe and planned to arrive in Munich in time for Oktoberfest, and seemed surprised that we wouldn’t also plan accordingly. Well, sometimes life just doesn’t work out that way. It’s not that the idea of drinking vast quantities of beer and eating pretzels while listening to an oom-pah band doesn’t appeal to me. It does. But our return flight is from Paris and the timing is just too tight to make it to Oktoberfest and also see Paris. I told Bob that I would like to go to Oktoberfest, someday, maybe for my birthday one year.

Then I logged into couchsurfing one day and I saw this message, titled HerbsFest Rosenheim, posted under “Nearby Events”:

Not everyone knows that the Oktoberfest in Munich is not a German tradition but only a Bavarian one. But only a few persons know that there are more Beerfestivals like the Oktoberfest in Bavaria. The Oktoberfest may be the biggest and most known Beerfest in the world, but is it really the best?

I, as a bavarian, know many of those festivals, and I say: No. The Oktoberfest is just to big, to crowded, to expensive and their are too many tourist. I put this event into couchsurfing to give you the chance to see a traditional and real bavarian beerfestival as it should be.

Well. I really did not know just how many beer festivals were held all over the country. Good on you, Germany! The town of Rosenheim is only 40 minutes from Munich by train, and it just so happened that the first day of their annual autumn festival, or HerbsFest, would be our last day in Munich. A real Bavarian beer festival! No question about it—we were going to go.

I’ve heard that Oktoberfest has something of a fairground atmosphere, and HerbsFest was no different. Actually, it reminded me of the Arlington County Fair, although with more beer. There were rides, carnival games, and food stalls everywhere, and a few large beer tents.

Hotzinger-Brau tent

There were also PEOPLE. Lots and lots of people. Our couchsurfing host, who had accompanied us for the afternoon, told us that this was unusual on a Friday but it was probably only because today was the first day. The weekends are crowded, she said, but the weekdays are not too bad. I asked her about Oktoberfest. “Oh, it’s crowded all the time,” she said. “It’s like this every day.”

HerbsFest beer tent

We sat for about fifteen minutes and tried to flag down a waitress. Some of them made eye contact with us, but shook their heads no. There were way too many people in this tent. We moved to another one and got our beers within five minutes. They only serve one size of beer at  Bavarian beer festivals: masse, or one liter. The mugs are heavy on their own, and filled with beer they’re a little painful to lift. Drinkers need to adjust their grip accordingly. Cheers!The proper way to do it is not to grab the handle, but rather to slip your hand around the mug, balancing your thumb on the top of the handle. Then you can comfortably hold your beer one-handed– especially necessary during the many, many rounds of “Ein Prosit.” Our host told us that the waitresses at beer festivals need to be able to carry ten mugs of beer at once. I wonder if they have to prove their strength during the interview? I did see some of them carrying that many, but they move so quickly that I wasn’t able to get a picture. I also noticed most of them wearing wrist braces.

I was delighted to see how many people dress up for the occasion. I wasn’t expecting to see that at all. The number of people in dirndls and lederhosen far outnumbered those in street clothes. It wasn’t only the older people, either; almost all of the younger people were dressed up, and I even saw toddlers in tiny lederhosen. It was just great.

Men in lederhosenWomen in dirndlsLederhosen and dirndls

The thing that really completed my beer festival experience was the band. I’d known there would be beer and pretzels and carnival rides, but each tent also had their own live band. They were pretty good, not too loud, and just generally gave the tent a good atmosphere.

HerbsFest band

We were only able to stay for a couple of hours, but it was a great afternoon out. Now I feel like I don’t need to go to Oktoberfest—if it’s really as crowded as everyone says, I probably wouldn’t have a very good time. Maybe HerbsFest doesn’t have the name recognition, or as many beer tents, but the locals still seem to like it fine. And we liked it too. It had a lot of local flavor, and a fun, relaxed, family-friendly atmosphere. By the end of it, we too were singing along to “Ein Prosit” and clinking glasses with anyone sitting near us.

Difficulties

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Our trip has not been all sunshine and rainbows. We get lost, have misunderstandings, miss our transport connections, or waste time. Sometimes the weather is bad, the AC is broken, or the wi-fi connection is out. At times, we forget things in hostels, have trouble finding good places to eat, or can’t figure out how to open the rental car’s gas tank and it’s due back 30 minutes ago. Here are some of our worst travel experiences:

  • In Cambodia, we decided to travel by boat from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh. The trip is up the Tonle Sap river, a tributary of the Mekong, and we thought it sounded very romantic. When we booked tickets (at US$35 each,) we were told we were lucky, because the day we were traveling just happened to be the last day the boat was running until next season. During the dry season, the water level gets too low and the boat doesn’t run. I tell you what: the water level was already WAY too low. The large boat couldn’t travel far enough upstream, so we had to take a tiny boat to a smaller boat to the large boat. The trip, which was supposed to take five hours, took ten. We had no food besides a few raisins, and none was available for sale. The smaller boat didn’t have enough seats for everyone, and don’t even ask about lifejackets. Almost all the other passengers were German, and they had brought beer, which they started drinking heartily at 9 a.m. It was a rowdy ride.

While on the boat, I read my dad’s Cambodia guidebook. It recommended taking the bus instead of the boat, as the road between Siem Reap and the capital has recently been improved and the fare for the five-hour ride is only $6. Ugh.

Cambodian boat ride

But at least the scenery was nice.

  • In Lijiang, China, we returned late from hiking in Tiger Leaping Gorge. Chinese restaurants tend to close early, so after putting our bags in the hotel room, we scurried out to look for a bite to eat. We’d been in Lijiang a few days before, so we had seen some places we wanted to try, but they were all closing up. Even the street vendors had gone home. In desperation, we went in a restaurant that happened to have an English menu. Everything was more expensive than we were used to, so I chose the cheapest chicken dish there was: chicken Jane. It was less than half the price of the others, which should have clued me in. When it arrived, it looked nothing like chicken. It tasted nothing like chicken. The texture was of rubbery mushroom caps—it was like chewing a ribbed balloon. We had no idea what part of the chicken it was. It was stir-fried with green onions, so I picked out those and ate them with white rice.

About a month later, we were on a train with a Scottish couple who had also been traveling through China. They described eating something very similar. “And did you find out what part of the chicken it was?” I asked. “Oh, yeah,” they said. “It was chicken ovaries.”

  • From Yangon, Myanmar to the ruins of Bagan, the only way to travel is by bus or plane. Naturally, we opted for the cheaper (and probably safer) option: the overnight bus. The road to Bagan is paved all the way, but it was so bumpy it was like riding on a rumble strip for 10 hours. The driver had cranked up the AC as high as possible, and of course our jackets were in our backpacks, stowed under the bus, so we huddled together for warmth. To make matters worse, he never turned off the interior lights, so it was bright as day inside. Once or twice we made pit stops, and when the engine was off, the bus was quiet, still, warm, and dark; that was the only time we could get to sleep. At about 4:30 a.m. we made another pit stop. We happily curled up on our seats while everyone else filed off. Five minutes later, the driver came to get us. “Nyaung U,” he said. “No,” we said, “we’re sleeping,” and closed our eyes again. He tapped one of us and told us the name of the town again. We willfully ignored him. Another man boarded the bus and also told us we had to disembark. Grumpily, I asked why. “We’re here,” he said. “Get off.”

Thanks to that bus ride, our first day at the beautiful ancient ruins of Bagan was spent catching up on lost sleep.

  • Driving in Melbourne is one of the worst things one can ever do. There’s the normal city craziness, like one-way streets and hellish traffic, but Melbourne’s main streets have a weird system of putting medians between lanes that are traveling in the same direction. So, for example, a four-lane road will have with three medians across it. If you’re on the far side, you can only go straight or turn left. If you’re closer to the center, you can only go straight or turn right. God help you if you realize you’re in the far lane but need to turn right.

These streets are impossible to avoid, because the fastest way into town is to take the toll road, but the tollbooths don’t accept cash, only prepaid electronic cards like SmarTrip, and cars that attempt to pass the tollbooth without one will be fined hundreds of dollars. So tourists are pretty much screwed. In two months in Australia we never did figure out where to buy one of those cards.

And if you arrive in Melbourne on the first night of Sexpo, and the convention center is right across the street from your hostel, I repeat: God help you.

Sexpo
Unhappy campers
  • In Bordeaux, France, we had planned to couchsurf the entire time, two nights each with two different hosts. However, by the day of our arrival, our first host hadn’t gotten back to us. We were getting in on a Sunday night, when *everything* in France is closed, so we booked a hotel and emailed to let them know that we were getting in late. We never got a response, and on arrival, found that there was no one at reception and that the door was locked. Luckily, after a few minutes of waiting, another guest came out, so we could get into the lobby. There was an emergency telephone with a contact number posted next to it, which we tried to use, but (of course) it wasn’t free, nor did it accept coins. We needed a French phone card, which is (of course) impossible to buy at 10:30 p.m. on a Sunday. Plus, we didn’t even know how to dial the number. We tried several variations, accidentally called the police, and gave up. We were seriously going to sleep in the lobby, and had already moved our backpacks over to a nice cozy corner when another guest came through, saw us waiting, spoke a little English, and had a cellphone. She was our savior.

Did we get any apologies from the staff? Hardly: in the morning, when we checked out, they tried to charge us the full rate for the room.

Whenever we have one of these days, we say to each other:

“Today was difficult. Tomorrow will be better.” –Mr. S, Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse, by Kevin Henkes

Looking For My Roots

I would like to tell you the story of my great-great-grandmother Julia.

She was born in 1888 in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Ethnically she was Polish, and more specifically Galician; the village she lived in was part of Poland just over 100 years prior, but between 1772 and 1795 Russia, Prussia, and the Austro-Hungarian Empire split up Poland into three pieces, and southern Poland came under Habsburg control. At the time she was born, the village of Nyzhankovychi (Niezankowice in Polish) was quite diverse: Poles, Ukrainians, and Jews each made up about a third of the population. She had six or seven brothers and sisters. In 1906, at the age of eighteen, she decided to immigrate to the United States. The story goes that her father had to lend her the money for the boat fare. She was never able to pay him back.

She and a female relative (probably a cousin?) traveled to Hamburg to embark on the sea voyage to New York. On arrival, she didn’t speak any English and had no prospects. Luckily for her, Catholic charities were taking an active role in assisting new Catholic immigrants. They got her a job as a maid and probably also helped her find a place to live. Within two years, she was married and pregnant with her first child: my great-grandmother.

Meanwhile, over in Europe, war was breaking out and in 1918, the Austro-Hungarian Empire had dissolved. Poland was back on the map, but it was even bigger than it is today: its territory included all of the region of Galicia, which today straddles the Ukraine-Poland border. The rest of Ukraine, however, was soon incorporated into the fledgling Soviet Union. Lucky for the Galicians, they were spared from the terrible famine that struck Ukraine in the early 1930s. In 1939, Poland was invaded by Germany, and most of the country’s Jews—including, I suppose, the ones living in Nyzhankovychi—were killed. At the end of the war, when Poland came back into existence and the border was redrawn, the territory of Galicia was split in two, and Nyzhankovychi ended up on the Soviet side of the border. I don’t know much about the Soviet years, but it’s my impression that the Polish community did not fare well during that time. Polish culture was repressed and Catholics were forbidden from worshipping. Nowadays the Polish population in Nyzhankovychi is almost zero. The descendants of those who survived both world wars, who weren’t very many, have mixed with the Ukrainian population.

Road into Nyzhankovychi

The road into Nyzhankovychi

I wanted to visit this village for myself, first of all to see where one of my ancestors came from and also because it sounded like an interesting place in the crux of history. Not many towns can claim to have been part of five different countries in the past 100 years.

During the Soviet years, Nyzhankovychi was a border town. The international train passed through on its way to Poland. Nowadays the train still runs on the Ukrainian side of the border, but it is not an official border crossing with Poland. Since Poland is in the EU and Ukraine is not, apparently there have been some problems with smuggling (for example, in Ukraine, things like cigarettes are much cheaper.) When we arrived in town, a soldier boarded our bus and we were immediately questioned. First he checked our passports, and asked why we were in Nyzhankovychi. With the help of a passenger who spoke very good English, we explained that we just wanted to see the village, visit the church, and so on. He told us to wait. I was thinking, “Oh no. We’ve come this far and we’re not going to be allowed to get off the bus.” He came back a few minutes later with a plainclothes police officer and another soldier. Checking our passports again, they asked how long we had been in Ukraine. I was flustered and accidentally said “since June 20th” instead of “July 20th.” Luckily, I don’t think they noticed. He asked again why we were there. I gave a more specific answer, explaining about my great-great-grandmother (I hoped this would win me some points, but their expressions didn’t change.) Then he asked, “When are you going to Poland?”

“Poland??” How did he know that our next destination was Poland? Then I realized he meant today, not in general. “We’re not going to Poland. We’re here to see Nyzhankovychi. We’re going back to L’viv tonight.”

After this was translated, he had one more instruction for us. “The last bus is at 5:00. Make sure you’re on it.”

Bus stop, Nyzhankovychi

Bus stop in the center of town. It's a happenin' place

We agreed, and we were allowed to get off the bus. I was relieved, but Bob was paranoid that they’d be watching us the rest of the day. We started to walk around the town a bit, but when we saw more soldiers, Bob insisted that we shouldn’t walk any further; that they’d be suspicious if we were walking towards Poland. It took him a few hours to relax.

Just over 100 years ago, the population of Nyzhankovychi was about 1,750. Now it’s 1,850. The area is still predominantly rural, and we saw several horse-drawn carts traveling up the road.

View from the main road

It was all kind of strange. Cars alongside horse-drawn carts, geese wandering across the road, modern houses next to ancient-looking wells. I imagine that in some ways it still looks a lot like it did 100 years ago. Old well
The Catholic church is still standing, unlike many other churches in the former USSR. The church was established in 1461, although the present structure is from the 19th century. It was used as storage until 1991. I wandered around for awhile, trying to find an unlocked gate. An old woman saw me, showed me in, and waited while I looked around. It was very small; only eight or ten short pews. Interestingly, the Bibles and hymnals were in Polish.

Catholic church

Finding no leads in the church, we headed over to the graveyard to see if we could find any stones with my great-great-grandma’s surname. Eastern European graveyards are always colorful affairs. The graves are very well cared for, and I wonder if the descendants ever compete with each other for the title of “most fabulous.”

Graveyard The Polish graves were all in a separate section. We combed through those, and the Ukrainian ones for good measure, but found nothing. There are other graveyards in the area, so my relatives could be buried there. Or they could’ve moved. I’m really not sure what happened to the rest of the family after Julia immigrated.

Back in the US, my great-great-grandma moved to Philly, became a widow, moved to Chicago, remarried, and eventually took American citizenship, thirty-five years after immigrating. She lived long enough to meet several of her great-grandchildren. When visiting her, my father remembers her asking, always in Polish, for him to give her a kiss.

In the end, it wasn’t a very interesting town. We left sometime around 2 or 3 p.m. because we didn’t want to wait until 5. And I found no evidence that anyone I’m related to had ever lived there. But I felt satisfied anyway. I wanted to see the town and I did. Growing up, I never felt any sort of connection to Europe, even though I’m European-American. Seeing a place where one of my ancestors came from helped me feel more connected to the continent than I did before.

Eating Eastern Europe

Maybe it’s because we are genetically predisposed to it, but eastern European food really agreed with us. Perhaps it’s because our favorite vegetables feature prominently (mine is mushrooms; Bob’s is potatoes.) Or maybe it’s just that good. I mean really. Look at this: Polish buffet dinner

This is mall food in Poland. I am so jealous.

European food is always served in courses, so I should go through one by one. Eastern European salads are not beds of lettuce with some cucumber and tomato on top—there are endless varieties of pickled salads, coleslaw-type salads with mayonnaise, shredded carrot salad, potato salad, and my personal favorite, beetroot salad. Yes, seriously. You can see it in the photo, wedged between the fries and the cucumber-dill salad.

Ukrainian buffet dinner

Clockwise from top left: sour cherry dumplings, potato dumplings, roasted eggplant and tomato salad, and borscht

The next course is soup, so let’s talk borscht. I got to try two types of borscht: green and red. The green one is made with sorrel and the red one is made with beets. Borscht is not Russian in origin, but Ukrainian, and each country in the region seems to have their own variation.

Of course there are more soups: one Belarusian woman I met told me that her mother cooks soup every day. We tried solyanka, rasonyik, tomato cabbage soup, chicken soup…. All were good, but my favorite was rasonyik, made with pork, barley, potatoes, carrot, onion, and cucumber pickles.

Main dishes tend to be meat- or fish-based. When we stayed at Lake Baikal, we ate grilled fish every day, which was fantastic. Unfortunately, most of the rest of Russia doesn’t do seafood, and I didn’t find the meat dishes very exciting (hamburg steak, grilled chicken, etc.) so when possible, I opted for dumplings or just stuck to soup, salad, and bread. Bob is still disappointed he never found a restaurant serving beef stroganoff. In northwestern Ukraine and southern Poland, though, things were better; we really enjoyed Galician chicken pot pie and bigos. When cooking at home, we usually went to the supermarket and picked out a few random kielbasa. We were never disappointed.

Potato dumplings and mushrooms

Potato dumplings and mushrooms

The dumplings were probably my favorite part. Russian dumplings are filled with meat and are called pelmeni. Ukrainian dumplings are filled with vegetables or fruit and are called vareniki. The designation doesn’t mean much; both types are available in both countries. In Poland, all dumplings are called pierogi and come with many different fillings. “Russian” pierogis are filled with cheese, potato, and onion. The funny thing is that in Russia, that combination would definitely not be regarded as Russian. When serving dumplings, don’t forget plenty of butter and sour cream.  The savory ones are more well-known in the US, so the fruit-filled ones were a delicious surprise. Sweet dumplings are usually filled with sour cherries, but we were lucky enough to visit during blueberry season. The berries were tiny and the sweetest I’ve ever tasted.   Blueberry dumplings in Poland In a slightly upscale restaurant, I had them with a white chocolate sauce and powdered sugar, but at home, we ate them with sour cream and coarse granulated sugar. Heaven.Blueberry dumplings in Ukraine

When it comes to sweets, you only need one word in Russia: bliny. In two weeks, we visited a bliny chain called Teremok a total of five times. They do savory blinys too—mushrooms and sour cream is my favorite—but the sweet ones are really, really good. The best ones: apricot and tovorog (a kind of Russian sweet cottage cheese) or mixed berry. Teremok bliny

In one restaurant in Ukraine, we had something that was called baked bliny:

Baked bliny, Ukraine

Yes, that's more sour cream

Being of central and eastern European descent myself, a lot of these dishes were familiar to me. My ancestors all immigrated to the States over 100 years ago, so I’m not particularly close to any European traditions, but when it comes to food, I guess old habits die hard. The flavors and ingredients were very similar to the cuisine my mom cooked when I was growing up. It’s the kind of food that isn’t often served in restaurants—it’s not haute cuisine—but in the home, it really shines. Thanks to couchsurfing, we enjoyed several home-cooked meals while in the region. Our Ukrainian hosts took us to meet their grandparents, who welcomed us like their own grandchildren and stuffed us silly with great food. Since it was just an informal meal at home, they didn’t serve courses, but rather just laid everything out on the table and told us to eat up. In this photo, Bob is reaching for a crepe-like roll that’s filled with chopped mushrooms. It’s eaten with a mushroom cream sauce. For eastern Europeans, there is no such thing as too many mushrooms.Lunch is Ukraine

The potato-looking things on the center top are actually potato dumplings—kind of like gnocchi but much bigger. They’re filled with cottage cheese and can also be eaten with a cream sauce. Our couchsurfing host told us that this was one of her most favorite foods, so her grandma always makes it when she comes to visit. This spread is nothing, by the way; this was just lunch. Apparently, on Christmas Eve, they do a twelve-course dinner.

Eastern Europe is not generally regarded as one of the world’s greatest culinary destinations, but if you come with a big appetite and a liking for dairy products, they will never let you leave hungry.