Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Thoughts on Ukraine and Ukrainianness

First: It is not some backward primitive place. I was ready for it to be, based on Long Way Round, in which Ewan McGregor and his friend Charley notice that all the roads go to pieces and people are driving horses and buggies as soon as they cross the border into Ukraine. (they are later hosted by a vodka-swilling AK-47-owning maybe-mafia guy.) I'd say if Germany is 100% "modern"/just-like-home, Poland and Slovakia are like 90% and Ukraine is 80%. There are just a few weird difficult things in Ukraine, like buying train tickets and managing with Cyrillic. (this makes it also more interesting.)

Second: It's not very culturally different from Poland. I guess eastern Ukraine is. Western Ukraine (for reasonable historical reasons) is not.

Third: so I'm a bit Ukrainian. Okay. Given that it's 80% just like home, I'm not sure if I learned anything. I mean, the guy I stayed with in Lviv was (entirely coincidentally) an almost-coworker at Google. I've seen some old-style houses in Ukraine and in Poland at cultural museums. All this ancestor-following kind of confirms what I imagined: in Poland/Ukraine it's dark and rainy and you make fences out of bent slices of wood because nails are too expensive; in Italy it's beautiful and you hang out on piazzas and drink wine. (guess stereotypes exist for a reason?)

Fourth: well of course people who lived 100 years ago don't have much bearing on my life now. It's just cocktail-party interesting, like Myers Briggs tests or astrology.

Monday, May 28, 2012

I guess I might as well update, given that I'm two countries away

Hi! I'm in Prague. My poor scooter will take another week to fix, and I don't want to miss the chance to visit my friend Victoria in Prague, so I went ahead and did that. Lviv, Ukraine to Zilina, Slovakia to Prague, Czech Republic in just 20 hours.

European trains are different than Indian trains, and I was trying to articulate how, but then I realized it is mostly just this: they are ten times as expensive and half as full.

You can still get tea. (And it's still pronounced "chai".) That is ten times as expensive and half as sugary.

All is well! I feel like an international superhero, hopping countries every three days. It's a tough life, right?

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Ivano-Frankivsk and Yaremche: now I am officially Off The Beaten Path

Well... off the American beaten path. I managed my way to a slice of the Ukrainian beaten path.

I went to Ivano-Frankivsk because it was another place besides Lviv in Galicia and there are relatively many couchsurfers there. Then I had a free day there and no idea what to do, but my cheerful host Anna mentioned that a lot of folks come to Ivano-Frankivsk on their way to go hiking (or even skiing) in the Carpathian mountains. And the easiest way to get there was to go to a small town called Yaremche.

Language confusion is sort of the best and the worst here in Ukraine. I guess it is one of the least English speaking places that I might normally go to, at least according to one guy. I muddled through Pimsleur Russian enough that I can invite Mr. Pronin for a beer at Cafe Savor (unless he would prefer wine), but western Ukraine is the most Ukrainian-speaking (and least Russian-speaking) part of the country. Nevertheless, the languages are close enough, and enough people speak both, that you can get by with Russian just fine. ... if your Russian is good enough to also understand Mr. Pronin's response to your invitation, which mine isn't.

In short, it's the hardest place to get around. I know less Polish/Czech/Balkan than Russian, but whenever something serious has come up, there's been an English speaker near enough. Ukraine is the only place where I've felt that we might just have to abort the conversation.

Me, in broken Russian: "Do you going Yaremche?"
Bus driver: something I didn't understand.
Me: "Uh, you travel Yaremche?"
Bus driver: "No."
Me: "Okay, thanks." (gets off bus)
Bus driver and everyone on the bus: kind of looks at me funny out the window
Me: (getting back on bus) "I don't understand. Yaremche, da?"
Bus driver: "Da!"
Me: laughs, sits down.
Bus driver: "Hah! I don't understand!"
Everyone on the bus: laughs.

Anyway, Yaremche was nice. There's a waterfall totally surrounded by souvenir stands. Where am I, Nepal? I guess there's also a nice trail to walk on.

Me: (again, broken Russian) Where is the "way of Dovbush"?
Guy: (laughing) Go autobahn, there. (points to road)
Me: Okay, thanks.
Guy: (still laughing)

Me: Excuse me, where is the Way of Dovbush?
Lady: (pointing, says something I don't understand.)
Me: Uh, okay. (starts walking one way)
Lady: (something else, pointing the other way, the way I just came, where there is clearly no Way of Dovbush)
Me: Oh! Okay. (I start walking the other way, then pause, turn around, and scurry past, the way I was originally going, while she's talking to someone else.)

So I didn't go hiking.

Ivano-Frankivsk is nice too. Anna gave me a thorough tour. It has lots of iron art sculptures, because there's an iron-art festival every year.

It also has this cool pond.
It also has at least one great cafe/wafflery, where I am now, and where I'm going to leave because it's crowded, and I've been sitting here for a long time.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Lviv is a great place to eat and drink.

Over the past day and a half I:
- drank coffee lit on fire (with some liquor) and dripped through metal pipes in an underground coffee mine (which is funny when you think about it)
- had lunch in a bunker dedicated to the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, which fought against both the Nazis and the Soviets. You have to say the password ("slava Ukraina", or "glory to Ukraine") to enter; Seattle bars take note!
- stumbled into a bar themed on torture instruments. When I was done, the waitress put a wood block on the table with the check on it, then chopped through it with an ax.
- ate dinner at a nice cafe on the central square
- had a drink with some Couchsurfing folks in a 5-story multi-room cafe where each room has a different theme

They really do their theme restaurants/cafes right. Remind me to put this place on my list of "places to go write an app for a week".

Other sightseeing: some churches and museums and stuff. Really cool cemetery. Kept looking for Warcabas, but no luck.

Famous writer Ivan Franco.

Also went to the obligatory high place to get a view of the city:
It's nice here! Very lively; there are some performances and stuff for the upcoming Euro 2012 soccer tournament, and just a lot of people out around town. This is definitely a city where there are old guys playing chess in the park. And everything is cheap. As my CS host Yuriy joked, "when I went to the US, the prices stayed the same, except in dollars instead of hryvnia." 1 dollar = 8 hryvnia.

Moving on today to another Galician city, Ivano-Frankivsk. Careful readers may note that it's named after a famous Ukrainian writer.

Monday, May 21, 2012

"It, uh, problem! Big!"

Shop 1 couldn't fix my bike, so they sent me to shop 2. The guys at shop 2 seem pretty good, they speak English*, and they have a van that can transport my broken bike. I think it's in good hands. They said it'd take until about the end of the week, so tomorrow I'm going on to Ukraine by bus. Hang out there a bit, come back and hopefully pick up the bike in Lublin again, and charge on!

* whenever I say something like this, I want to put a lengthy disclaimer about how "they speak English" is sort of incidental, not the reason that I think it's in good hands. I feel weird pointing it out. Interesting thought: talking about speaking English feels like talking about race.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Here is a sunrise in Lublin.

In Lublin, I've been hanging out with my friend Anu from college, who is now in med school, currently studying for some exams. She also goes to this circus group sometimes. They juggle, spin poi and hoops and staffs, slackline, aerial silk, and other amazing things. So that's cool.

We juggled and spun with them on Friday, then hung out afterward and drank and talked and stuff until the sunrise. (that is not quite so late here; it's summer, it's far north, and it's on the eastern edge of the time zone, so we're talking 3 or 4 AM. still.) Cool folks! They're very friendly, and we can communicate well enough, due almost entirely to their speaking English. Some students, some other young people, all very creative.

Anu and I have also walked around and seen things in Lublin. There is a very cool cemetery. There is also a castle and a pretty old town. (there must be an old town factory in Europe. every city has one. maybe it's the same factory that makes Chinatown gates.)

This is in the cemetery. It's not the castle. Also, that's Anu.

On Saturday night, Anu had to study, and I am on a surprising extra weekend in Lublin because of bike woes, so I juggled and partied with the circusers again. I think I have now seen more sunrises in the past week than I had in the previous 6 months.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Dancing lessons from God, dancing lessons from God

I was just on my way out of Lublin when something sounded kind of explodey in my little scooter's engine. My handlebars got all wobbly and I had to coast to a stop. Luckily, I safely pulled it off to the side of the road. Then it made a noise like a big gnashy metal monster when I tried to start it back up. I suppose I am not going to Ukraine today!

A nice guy at a local car shop called a bunch of scooter mechanics, but they were all closed for the day weekend. (Europe, man! Weekends are serious business. Or rather, serious not-business.)

I clumsily walked it down the road to a scooter shop that I passed. They were just closing up, but they took it and will get to it on Monday.

This is fine. I had to quickly notify a few couchsurfers in Ukraine that I would not be there today and perhaps not at all but I don't know yet. I had to pass on the worrying news about the scooter to John, its German owner. I am inconveniencing my friend Anu and her roommate Tara by staying at their place unannounced for a couple more days. (I am attempting to make up for the last part by cooking them some good food.) But this is life; as a traveler I am continually inconveniencing a lot of people.

It is nice that there's no reason to get all fussed about all this. I am glad that the explodey incident did not go a lot worse, I'm glad that I'm safe and among friends, and I'm glad that today too has had too much life to write down. Thank you for everything, I have no complaints whatsoever.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Poland, where the forests are cold and dark

Do fairy tales come from Poland? I would imagine they do. There are a lot of forests, and they're dark. There are some farms too:

For the last couple days it's been about 50F, overcast, and spots of rain. It's about as cold as I'd want it to get to keep riding, but it's still okay. Yesterday was actually fun: I wanted to get to Lublin (and off the road) as fast as possible, so I drank a bit of coffee and blasted through a Brothers Grimm forest. Unfortunately, I can see where some people get the need for speed. (fortunately, I can't do much about it. also fortunately, 50mph feels pretty fast on my bike.)

Just previously, I stopped in Kolbuszowa, Poland, near Rzeszow, where a couchsurfer named Mateusz kindly invited me to stay with his family. It's a small town, but they have a neat museum area there were you can see how things were in the old days.

And then yesterday, I arrived in Lublin! Probably the northernmost point I'll hit on my bike. It's so far north that the sun comes up at something stupid like 4 AM. My friend Anu is in med school here, and I've arrived just in time to interrupt her studying for finals. I'll hang out here for a couple days, then head to Lviv, Ukraine.

(geez, and I didn't even mention Kosice, second-biggest city in Slovakia, where there was a cool bunch of CSers and a nice old town. life is happening too fast to record. this is a good thing.)

Gear update

Socks are all terrible. Nobody in the world makes a good pair of socks. Pricey ones from Smartwool etc are too warm, and my recent ones (cheap Dockers whatever black socks) have holes after <10 wearings. Replaced with some more nonsense socks by Nike or Umbro or whatever.

My poor shirt has seen the end of its days. I wanted it to last the full year, but after a couple of rips I think that continuing to wear this garment
makes me officially at least a little bit slovenly. Replaced with new khaki colored shirt:

Oh yeah, and due to cold weather, the Cool hat has a new life as the Cool neckwarmer.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

I'm in Poland

Went through Slovakia, spent a nice couple of days in Kosice, and am now in Kolbuszowa, Poland. Look that up on your map!

In short, all's well, Couchsurfing a lot which is mostly great, weather is cold, but the bike and I are still alive, so I'm doing fine. Details later!

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Let's Generalize About Hungary!

Here are some things I think about Hungary, after my in-depth research based on four days of being there.

The land: I hate a lot of it. Much of Hungary like a Thomas Friedman book: Hot and Flat. (not crowded, though, thank god.)
Once I got up into the northern part, though, around Eger and Miskolc, it got interesting and hilly and forested and full of castles and pretty.

I think I would have liked Eger (and Lillafured, in the national park between Eger and Miskolc), but I had to speed through as the sun was setting.

The cities: Pecs was pretty cool. Student town, bikers, people out in the main square, etc. Kecskemet and Miskolc were a little less active. As with other post-communist countries, Hungary is full of ugly blocky apartment towers. These are really soul-crushing.

Completely wild speculations about people: I've heard that Hungarians are kind of pessimistic. My hosts agreed with that one. I also heard that Hungarians were really smart (Erdos, Liszt, von Neumann, a bunch of nuclear physicists, etc) and my hosts could neither confirm nor deny that. I think Hungarian art is kind of neat, based on the one museum of modern Hungarian artists I went to. It's all a little blocky and abstract but not minimalist or nuts like Rothko or Pollock. This guy made some neat things. Also, all the restrooms have interesting yet recognizable men/women signs.

Food: again, I know only the junk food. Langos is my favorite Hungarian pastry. No wait, Pogacsa is my favorite Hungarian pastry. Cancel that, Kürtőskalács is my favorite Hungarian pastry. I guess they have goulash and peppers and all sorts of other things, but they do have good pastries.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Nothing ever goes wrong ever.

Today I ran out of gas. Here is why I ran out of gas:
1. I was going through Heves, Hungary, about which my hosts had warned me "you probably don't want to stop there. A lot of gypsies."
2. As soon as I entered said city, my gas tank light went on. But I figured I had another 30km or so.
3. The next town, Fuzesabony, was hard to navigate; I wandered around houses for 15 minutes wondering where the hell the y'know businesses are.
4. Gas station #1 in Fuzesabony was closed.
5. Gas station #2 in Fuzesabony was closed. A couple guys in a truck driving by saw my plight and said "Eger." (Eger was 20km away.)
6. On the road to Eger there was another gas station. Said gas station had no gas. "Benzene. Nem?" "Nem. Eger."
7. 0.5km from Eger, I ran out of gas. It was all downhill from there. I rolled and walked into the gas station. Yessss!

Also today I almost blew up my bike, and some guys in a car worked some magic. Here is how this happened:
1. My battery died because of the gas thing I guess. I try it every five minutes just in case it will magically start working. Nope.
2. I asked the guys at the gas station if they could give me a jump. "Are you sure that would work, from a car to a bike?" "Nope, I'm not sure at all!" (confer confer) "Actually, it will not work. It would make your battery explode." Oh.
3. A guy in a scooter pulled in to get gas, and we convinced him to jump my bike. No luck. "Well, I think it is not the battery then."
4. "Ahh, it is Saturday evening, and all the mechanics are closed. There are mechanics in Eger, but it is Sunday tomorrow and they will be closed too. Do you have anyone you could call?" "Um, not really. Hmm." "Hmm."
5. Another car pulled up. The gas station guy conferred with him. "Can you start the bike?" "Okay, I'll try." It starts up!

Finally, today I almost did a dumb thing, but I was saved because nothing ever goes wrong ever. Here is an internal dialogue of these events.
1. "My bike is running! My bike is running! I will not turn it off until I reach Miskolc, where I am going to sleep. Worst case, I can deal with it in the morning."
2. "Well, the closest route is through the national park. 50km, no sweat."
3. "Boy, those clouds look threatening."
4. (25km into this 50km road) "I wonder why all those cars are stopping. Oh, a truck is on fire in the road. Okay."
5. (pulls over, stops the bike, instinctively turns it off.) "fffffffuuuuuu--"
(long pause while the fire department takes care of the truck on fire in the road.)
6. Nothing ever goes wrong ever, the battery was the problem all along, and it starts back up instantly.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Turns out Sarajevo is really nice and the politics are a hopeless soup

Sarajevo! Do you think of wars and stuff? Don't: that was all 17 years in the past and now it's a really neat place.

Skippable political interlude: Bosnia and Herzegovina, the country, has two parts. They are not "Bosnia" and "Herzegovina." The major ethnic groups in B&H are Bosniaks, Serbs, and Croats. When Yugoslavia split up, Serbia got most of the Serbs and Croatia got most of the Croats (of course), but some of the Serbs and Croats were living in Bosnia and didn't really want to move, so now they are "Bosnian Serbs" or "Bosnian Croats." There were a lot of Bosnian Serbs, so they set up the "Republika Srpska" within Bosnia and Herzegovina; it's like there are two states within Bosnia and Herzegovina, and RS has 49% of the political power while the "Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina" has 51%. (FoB&H has mostly Bosniaks but also some Croats.) As far as religion, Serbs are mostly Orthodox Christians, Croats are mostly Catholic, and Bosniaks are mostly Muslim.

Whatever! The relevant part for a traveler is that Bosniaks are really friendly. (Serbs and Croats probably are too, but I can't comment as much.) Sarajevo, capital of B&H, and within FoB&H, is a city where you go in to get a minor bike fix, and they not only drop everything to help you, but the owner takes you around sightseeing on his bike and buys you lunch in the meantime.

It is culturally neat, because it's mostly Muslim, but with lots of Orthodox/Catholic things too. Islam came from the Ottomans. Bosniaks are pretty easygoing, and the Ottomans were not terrible rulers, so they mostly adopted Islam, and it worked pretty well. As my couchsurfing friend said, "You go to Paris, you see a lot of things built by kings for kings. Here the kings built things for the people." Examples include the water fountains (like the first picture above) and various Waqfs/vakufs: buildings donated to the common good. Lots of mosques here are waqfs.

The white things in the foreground are a Muslim cemetery. It's a very European Islam: very similar to things that are familiar to us, just a little different.

But time is marching on, so I moved on to Banja Luka, another biggish city in B&H, but this time in the Republika Srpska.

It's cool too. Supposedly the greenest city in former Yugoslavia. Also supposedly there are 7 girls per guy. I think the latter number is inflated, but it is very green.

Twice I saw big groups of old guys playing giant chess in the park. What a great idea! Why are there not giant chessboards (and groups of old guys) everywhere all the time?

Finally, the food here is pretty heavy but surprisingly I love it. A couple of main genres I've been able to enjoy:
- burek. Take fillo dough, roll it around meat ("burek") or cheese ("sirnica") or spinach and cheese ("zeljanica"), then roll that food-stick into a spiral. Served with yogurt to drink.
- cevapi. Spiced meatballs in a pita-ish bread. I guess this is nothing new. I heard that there are no factory farms here. Maybe that's why the meat tastes so good.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

As promised:

Red = past, Green = future, peppers ("paprika" in Europese) = where I'm spending a night. Well, except Ancona and Split; I only spent one night between them, on the ferry.

Croatia! What a nice ride!

Not sure it was entirely worth it to go out of my way to visit Dubrovnik, as I am tired of tourist towns, but here's the thing: I don't know where else to sleep. Especially in Croatia. There are a million rooms along the road, but I am guessing they are all out of my price range. In Dubrovnik, a room costs about 50 euro; I'm sure it's less on the road, but I don't know how much. In a tourist town like Dubrovnik, there is a hostel, which keeps me in the 20-euro range. Oh and I guess it's kind of nice to have an ancient city there to walk around or whatever:

Same with Mostar.

So I guess nowadays I'm thinking:
1. actually talking meaningfully with people who live in a place is probably the best thing to do while traveling
2. hanging out with other travelers is nice too, about equivalent with:
2. walking around and looking at things

For #1, I have Couchsurfing. That's about it; I don't know how else to interact with strangers in a non-customery way. So when I can find a couch, that's a fun thing. When I can't find a couch (and my luck has dried up in Italy, Croatia, and most of Bosnia), I've mostly been looking at things. It is pretty solitary, but not in a bad way. I am kind of enjoying the chance to be totally anonymous.

And it's not like I have a ton of spare time anyway. Riding takes most of the day, by the time I suit up and get out, drive halfway, stop every so often for coffee or lunch or gas (and to get out of my helmet, which hurts after a couple of hours), get lost at least once, maybe end up stuck on a gravel road in the middle of nowhere (hup, today), arrive at my destination, find a place to sleep, and eat some food.

A friend said in an email "hope you're having the best time!" and I was going to reply something wishy washy about how I mean it's pretty good, but sometimes difficult, sometimes lonely, sometimes scary, sometimes worrying (why is the bike so loud recently?), sometimes tiring, and then I stopped, because if I'm going to quibble here, what the hell do I want?! There is a lot going on, I am seeing places and people and times shoot past at 100 figurative miles per hour, and that is the kind of diverse multicolored experience I was aiming for here!

So all's well. Sarajevo seems pretty swell so far too. Good night!

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Quick update from Bosnia

I think if I got to design heaven it would be an infinite downhill slope, and there's really great scenery, and you have a bicycle, and sometimes it gets snowy and you can switch to skis, but you still get to keep going downhill, unless you want to take breaks for mild uppers and downers.

The difference between that and the past couple days is that I'm currently creating my own "downhill" by riding a scooter (it's like bicycling but cheating), and that in the real world you can't take mild downers and drive.

My route has been Ascoli Piceno, Italy to Ancona, Italy to Split, Croatia (ferry!) to Dubrovnik, Croatia, to Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina, where I am now. Tomorrow I'm heading to Sarajevo where I'll rest for a day (whew!). I'm on an internet cafe computer so I'll have to say the following are coming soon:
- photos!
- a bit of description about Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Croatia for that matter
- maybe a description of the ferry trip and pondering living in a sort of bubble where I don't meaningfully interact with any people for a few days but this is okay
- a little bit of Bosnia border shakedown
- maybe a map if I'm feeling creative

Friday, May 4, 2012

Another fun thing: eating food in Italy

So this isn't some grand sweeping post about the best bresaola and risotto and capellini and vino and oh my god even the fennel is the best in the world. I didn't eat a lot of awesome things. I'm sure all these great things were here. But I don't know much about them, they're expensive, they require sitting down to a meal, and even then, I don't really care. It's all meat and cheese and white flour, none of which I really want to incorporate into my diet more.

However! I did take this chance to get well acquainted with three of the many Italian food groups:

1. Coffee. (duh.) "Caffe" is always espresso (always), it's always right around the corner, and it always costs one euro. I'm no espressoman myself, but in my humble opinion they ranged from good to great. I mean great, from roadside shops and gas stations. This is a nice surprise, because you'll never get a good cup of drip without seeking out a shop that specifically makes good drip coffee; in Italy you can drink coffee wherever and sometimes it's great.

Espresso is weird, though: it doesn't last very long! As a result, cafes have a bar where they serve the espresso, people stand up and drink it, pay, and leave. Takes about two minutes start to finish; feels like you're shooting up. If you run into someone on the street and you say "let's go for a caffe", it means "let's do conversational pleasantries and then leave." If you want say a 15 minute conversation, you go for an "aperitivo" (drink); if you want to hang out for like two hours you go for a meal. This leaves a big gap in the 30-60 minutes range, which is almost always the amount of time I want to spend with someone while we're consuming something. Dear Italy: the way you prepare your coffee has social consequences that I don't like.

You can put sugar in your espresso, I guess. If you want milk, you can order macchiato* or con panna or cappuccino. (But don't order cappuccino any time besides breakfast or you're a goofball.) Also, some (usually cheap) shops have started advertising "caffe ginseng" and "caffe orzo"; these sound interesting, but do not be fooled! they are travesties on the level of gas station "cappuccino."

* this is "caffe macchiato", or "marked coffee", which is to say, coffee marked with a little milk. It's not a Starbucks "macchiato." The confusion happens because a Starbucks macchiato is short for "latte macchiato", "marked milk", milk marked with a little bit of coffee. In the US I guess this causes baristas headaches when they make a caffe macchiato for someone who ordered a "macchiato" but meant "latte macchiato". Hard to say what went wrong, but I think it was when Starbucks started convincing people that "latte macchiato" is the main "macchiato" and furthermore that it is an acceptable "coffee drink".

So how do people make coffee at home, if they only drink espresso? They use a Moka pot. This is a cool device that I want to explain how it works here because I just figured it out, but it's hard to explain without having one to look at and take apart. It makes strong, bitter coffee, somewhere between drip and espresso. If you like sugar, you can take a bit of coffee from the Moka pot and mix it with some sugar and it sort of makes a coffee-sugary cream, which you can then put in your Moka coffee and it looks like the crema on top of an espresso. I guess this is desirable?

2. Pizza. I think I subsisted mostly on pizza here. Always thin crust, usually crispy and delicious. The toppings provide a solution to the conundrum of wanting to try some intense food (say, prosciutto) but not wanting to buy a whole damn sausage. If you sit down at a restaurant, you'll get a whole pie, while take-out shops just sell slices. Either way, it's pretty good, and definitely the cheapest/tastiest way to survive.

3. Gelato. Gelato shops are everywhere! Always get a small cone; it costs about a buck fifty and it's plenty. You get two (sometimes even three?) choices of flavors, and they'll be confused if you only pick one. All the flavors look so good, so you're forced to make a difficult choice, and I can't help you there. You could try the popular "zuppa inglese" ("English soup"?) which is (un)fortunately not as gross as it sounds. (It's some mix of cream and fruits.) Oh, also, I can't help you figure out if a place has good gelato or not; I've had mixed experiences. You will have to try a few until you find a really good one, and then just wolf down gelato nonstop until you have to move towns.

I wish I were lower-maintenance.

I don't mean "low maintenance" like most people, like not wanting fancy cars or jewelry or whatever. I mean it like my friend Daniel means it. I wish I could photosynthesize and generate my own heat. I wish I didn't have to think about what to eat or where to sleep, so I could just take off whenever and wherever.

This trip is so fast-paced, more stuff is happening than I can mentally process.This is not a complaint; it's somewhat by design. But it still means that I'm slightly frustrated by the amount of time it takes just to get up, brush teeth, shower, eat, dress, etc.

(another cool idea for a trip might be to not try to mentally process anything! don't blog or take pictures! it would probably be rather freeing. don't worry, not planning on it this trip.)

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Bosnia, let's do this.

Or, "another post in which Dan says he's going to somewhere that sounds dangerous." (this one really isn't, though! even the ever-cautious US state department is not warning against it!)

I've got a ferry ticket from Ancona, Italy to Split, Croatia. Then I'm headed north to Poland. Google Maps is pretty weak in Bosnia and Herzegovina, so it routes me around through Croatia... but Bosnia is more direct. And interesting; who's been to Bosnia? Croatia sounds cool too, like Dubrovnik and the Plitvice lakes, but y'know those are crowded. But then, maybe Bosnian roads are sketchy?

But maybe maybe a lot of things! Whatever! This sounds like an adventure! Let's go through Bosnia!

The plan now:
Tomorrow: get to Ancona, Italy, and take the ferry to Split, Croatia
May 4: hang out in Split
May 5: Split from Split (har har!) to Mostar, Bosnia
May 6: Mostar-Sarajevo
May 7: Sarajevo
May 8: Sarajevo-Banja Luka
May 9: Banja Luka-Pecs, Hungary
May 10: hang out in Pecs
May 11: Pecs-somewhere else in Hungary
May 12: that somewhere to Kosice, Slovakia
May 13: Kosice
May 14: Kosice to somewhere in Poland
May 15: that somewhere to Lublin, where my friend Anu is living.

How about this! Now this is an adventure. Let me know if you have any suggestions. Yes!

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

In search of Giuseppe Tassi: Ascoli Piceno and Offida

So my dad is Jeff, and his dad is Leo, and they were all born in the US, and that's as far back as I know. But I've heard that Leo's dad (my great-grandfather) was one Giuseppe Tassi, who was the one to come over to the US from Italy. And then I heard that he (and some other relatives) came from a town called Offida. Here's the story of how I sought it out.

First stop, Ascoli Piceno:

It's the biggest town in the area, and I had a name and address (no phone number) of a Lino and Germana Francheschi who lived here. So I got a place to stay and sought them out. Found their place, but no answer at their door. So I went on to Offida itself.

I had a couple of possible connections here. First, Enrica Tassi at Via Cipoletti 49. Turns out Via Cipoletti ends at 47 (hah!). But I asked a guy and he asked a lady and they said "Tassi? They live over here at the piazza." I rang the doorbell, and no answer. As I was leaving, a nice younger couple was exiting the house. I said "Signor, Signora Tassi?" They were a little confused, but she spoke English, so I explained my goofy situation and she said yeah, two Tassi sisters live in the other rooms in the house. Turns out Giuliana was home, so we rang her bell again, and she came down to say hi.

Another Tassi, Elvira, was at work at the theater (taking tickets; it's a tourist attraction) so we went to visit her too. They were nice folks, but I couldn't figure out anything to say other than "good to meet you" and sort of explain my situation in broken Italian, so I left it at that and moved on.

They said "oh hey, another Tassi, Peppino, lives around the corner on Via del Merletto."

I went for a look.

No! Giuseppe Tassi! Could it be? I mean, he's my great grandfather and dead, but... is this his house? Did he used to live on this very street, walking through these cobblestones and stuff to get to farming or making barrels or whatever the heck he did?

Short answer: nope, it's another Giuseppe Tassi.

He's a friendly guy. I think. At first when I rang his doorbell, I sort of said "hi, my name's Dan Tasse, uh, my grandfather's name is Tassi, uh... ?" and he looked out of his window sort of annoyed and said something that sounded like "No thanks, I'm not interested, what are you doing, leave me alone." But then he came down and invited me in, he poured us each half a beer, and we talked for about a half hour in broken Italian. (I mostly just spoke Spanish. It was a silly mess.)

Long answer: Well, he is Giuseppe Tassi. (He's also Peppino Tassi. Giuseppe = Peppe = Peppino. It's a nickname.) But he's not the Giuseppe Tassi I'm looking for. (of course. because my great grandfather is dead.) He had no children, and as far as I can tell, he knew none of the other people I was talking about. Strange coincidental name? More distant relation? Why did all the Tassi's keep naming their sons Giuseppe? God (or a fluent Italian speaker) only knows.

I had one more name in my notebook. Given my half-luck so far, and the awkwardness involved in explaining why the heck I'm there, I almost just gave up. But it started to rain, and I found myself right outside Luciana Tassi's house, so I figured might as well give it a shot.

She started out equally confused, but then became quite excited to see me once she realized what I was on about. She invited me in, made me a coffee, her energetic little dog jumped all over me, and explained as much history of her side of the family as she could. The story gets a little more confusing from there (and involves at least one more Giuseppe!) but I think I figured out that we actually are related, and learned about some of the folks that she knows. Email me if you want the details.

Giuseppe (her father), center; Cesare (top right), her grandfather, who went to America.

I leave you with a couple of other things that were in Offida that day:

Santa Maria della Rocca. Cool church. Crypt on the first floor, church on the second. Looks like they built the crypt first then smashed a church on top of it just for kicks.

Boxing! Why not?

Even just being around Offida, it was neat to think that my actual forefathers did actually ramble around these streets (probably just like they are now) on their way to the fields or the barrelmaker's shop or whatever the hell they did. Made it all the way here, and I'm calling this a success. A little bit of roots: discovered! A+ all around, good job team. More photos!

How it is to motorcycle through Italy

Here is how I've gone:

A was the starting part from Switzerland in to Italy. It was awesome.

B was when I got lost all the live long day trying to avoid Brescia (just because it's a big city). Argh argh! Navigation is difficult on a motorbike because I can't take my eyes off the road or my hands off the handlebars. I can't even write stuff on my hands because I'm wearing gloves. All I can do is memorize the next couple turns, then try to do them, then pull over to the side of the road to check my phone to see if I did them right. (thank god for phone + google maps + gps. the ability to quickly check if I'm going in kinda the right direction or not is incredibly useful.)

C was uneventful and mostly crummy, going through developed flat parts of Italy. It made me think "Italy is like California: nice weather, overdeveloped and tacky, and super popular, and I don't see what all the fuss is."

D was also uneventful, but at least it was mostly a straight shot on the same road, so navigation was easy. Just follow the road to Rimini. (but not all the way to Rimini. ugh.)

E was when I decided "hey, I am near San Marino. I wonder what's in San Marino. I might as well visit San Marino. Worst case, I get to check another country off my list." This was a mistake. (but hey, checked another country off my list.)

F was small hill towns through Emilia-Romagna, Umbria, and Tuscany. (Hi Mom, I'm riding a scooter through Tuscany.) It was awesome.

Eventually I made it to Ascoli Piceno, but that's a topic for another post.

Stories from the road:

- I am glad I have a full-face helmet, not only because of accidents but also because more than a few bugs have hit me in the face.

- Most of the gas stations here in Italy have no people, they're just 24-hour pay-at-the-pump stations. Which is fine, except they don't take my credit card. You can pay with cash, but my bike takes about 15 euro tops to fill up, and they don't give change. (I guess you can take the receipt to get change later?) So I'm hoarding 10-euro bills to fill up 5.37 liters at a time.

- Tunnels are surprisingly fun.

- Corners are surprisingly difficult. I find myself braking a lot before turns. I think it's like skiing: I err on the side of caution and bleed off more speed than is necessary. This is fine. Someday, if I keep riding, I'll take some classes and get better at cornering.