Tuesday, July 16, 2013

A Carutza, a Cat, and No Turning Back:The Road to a Romanian Farm

An extended stay in Berlin meant that we needed make a swift trip to Bacau, Romania in order to reach Hilary's flight back to London. We spent a night in Prague, where the locals were as unfriendly as they were aggressive, and continued on to Budapest, one of my favorite cities. Hungary, it is worth noting, has undergone sweeping changes within its government recently which have reduced diversity both politically and judicially, and I noticed something that may be of some relevance. Three years ago when motorcycling across Europe, I reached the communist era border complex, between Austria and Hungary, to find it completely abandoned and simply drove right through. This trip, however, I was a bit dismayed to find that it was once again operational, albeit at a reduced capacity from its Cold War peak. Though the police were not stopping every vehicle, each was carefully profiled prior to being waved through or pulled aside for further scrutiny. We were among the lucky ones.
Quite possibly my favorite piece of architecture, the Hungarian Parliament Building 
   It was my third trip to Budapest. My first encounter found me running around the streets and subway stations, unsupervised, with my buddy Jason in the summer of 93'. It was a watershed. Though at the age of 14 I already possessed a healthy obstinance, 3 days wandering the maze of Budapest helped to cement my independence. Some may say that it's been downhill since then, and indeed, the days following that golden summer have seen me expelled, arrested, beaten, and condemned more times than my mind can calculate, however, looking back, I must say, "it's pretty good being me". After all, I've been to Budapest!
  Although not my first trip to Budapest, there was a first. As I slept off a mild hangover from a late night on the town, Hilary was doing some wandering of her own. She returned to inform me that had gotten me a gift. And so it was, at 2PM,on the 19th of May, in a 5 star hotel, I had my first facial. It was quite nice!
6000 miles and she's still smiling. That's a riding partner I can deal with.
 The sprint from Budapest to Bacau revealed devolving infrastructure as well as odd and inefficient forms of transport. Not that I'm complaining. Romania is, in and of itself, moving along quite nicely (To be quite honest, I like the frontier atmosphere that still exists in many areas, though I doubt it will be around for much longer), however,  there is no mistaking it for Western Europe. But even with pot hole riddled roads, carutzas, and errant cattle we made it to the tiny international airport with a couple of hours to spare. This gave us opportunity to watch the Romanian Air Force scramble their ancient MiGs which, aside from proving their pilots very brave men, may one day be of great asset if there is a resurgence of the Ottoman Empire.
So, with Hilary's departure I was once again alone, heading north to a farm along the Ukrainian border.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Open Spaces and Fallen Walls: The Difference Between the Stasi and NSA

Edinburgh Castle circa 2010. The cheapest motorcycle trip across Europe ever.
After a wonderful week on the Isle of Man, Hilary and I set off for Scotland. Though I am very fond of Edinburgh, and would like to have stayed longer, an extremely tight schedule ensured that we simply pass through. As such, we settled for a Kurdish lunch just outside of the castle walls and continued on to the highlands. The primary order of business was to reach the Isle of Skye for some primitive camping.
     From the lush green meadows dotted with sheep to the rocky escapements towering over the shore, Skye is a visual treasure. It's a beautiful escape from civilization to serenity. Over the years it has been a favorite sanctuary of writers and wanted men alike, which makes it a perfect fit for me.  Access to the Isle was once a ferry only affair, however, nowadays there is a bridge connecting the mainland which, all things considered, is a bit unfortunate. Though I find man made barriers appalling (I have a history of disregarding them) natural ones are simply good fun. 
A very late sunset from the Isle of Skye
So, we opted for a ferry ride to the southern tip of the Isle and set off in search of castle ruins. The twisty single track roads that connected the villages were terrific fun, with grades which reached as much as 20 degrees. Eventually we located both ruins and a suitable campsite. That evening's sunset was spectacular with a vestige of light which lingered behind the opposing cliffs till well past midnight.
   The following morning brought with it the urge for a hike and we set off in search of a trail which might take us to higher elevation. Eventually we located such a path and began a quick assent. Ultimately, the beaten trail dwindled into meadow and, as often is the case, my hiking partner was left in the dust. As I contemplated a route to the top, I spied a lady in her mid to late 60's sporting two dogs and a walkie- talkie. I approached her and her dogs sprinted in my direction. Their initial protests quickly calmed following a brief introduction. The pooches now following me, I inquired of the lady the best route to the peak which loomed behind us, concerned about the fences we might encounter. "Oh, you need not worry", she responded, "hop over them, those are just for the livestock, you can go anywhere in Scotland that isn't obviously someone's back garden (yard)". Incidentally, hopping fences is a specialty of mine. I found
Perhaps I should publish a rider's guide, "Wheelies made easy"
4000 miles in the U.K., top to bottom and east to west. I'm just gettin' started!
it most appealing that there would be no one waiting to beat me when I did so. Ah, I could definitely live here.
  Once back to camp, our tent and supplies were packed securely within the panniers and we followed our noses north to John O'Groats. It seemed the logical direction, if only for posterity, and a 4,000 mile tour of the U.K., which began near Land's End, was capped in the company of fishing vessels. After a sprint south to Harwich
our 5th, and final, ferry ride took us to Holland and cars traveling in the correct direction.


A private viewing of JVE's Saint Barbara was the highlight of Amsterdam

Aside from a good day at the Rijksmuseum, and hanging with the cool cats at Scooter Zuid, I left Amsterdam feeling rather fleeced. The agglomeration of restaurants in the tourist area are pricey and, more troubling, serve food of very low quality. The tapas bar we first selected sparked my discontent. None of the food was good and when my halved, grilled, and mozzarella topped Jalapenos arrived whole, fried, and cream cheese injected, I asked the waiter where the mozzarella cheese was? He told me, straight faced, that the white substance dripping from the oily batter was mozzarella. We left in search of another place and found that the next locale was just as bad. Combined, almost 100 euro for perhaps 5 euro worth of lousy food and 4 beers. What a rip-off! We decided to shorten our stay in Amsterdam and made tracks for Berlin.
  Economically, Berlin, and former East Germany as a whole, still bear the scars left by the GDR. This isn't all bad though. Relatively high levels of unemployment, supported by typical German austerity, help to ensure that prices remain quite reasonable. We lucked into a fabulous room at the newly opened Winters Hotel, adjacent to "Checkpoint Charlie", just inside the East Side, which once overlooked the Kill Zone buffer for the Wall. The fabulous modern hotel room was quite easily the nicest I'd ever stayed in. Price? 90 Euro per night. Not too bad!
                                                            DIE MAUER

As I stated earlier, I find man made barriers silly and this sentiment was clearly shared by Berlin's distinctly youthful population. While on a river cruise around the city teenagers and twentyish year olds were seen littering the banks regardless of high grass, fences, or even perilous drops. They all had beer or wine and
I'm unsure of what this means but I think I like it.
Reminders of the past decorate a diverse Berlin.
smiles on their faces. Waves and happy exclamations came freely and often. I couldn't help but think that back in America cops would be cracking down on this sort of behavior and business at juvenile hall would be at a record high. They wouldn't be smiling then! Fortunately, the police in Berlin have priorities that are more in line with rationality and I must confess to thoroughly enjoying the kid's simple, if inebriated, celebrations. The city's rough edges weren't at all threatening, in fact, I found them refreshing. There weren't any serious attempts to circumvent reality and the glittering often shared scenery with the demure. Though purely conjecture, I'd like to think that this is due, in part, to a mutual understanding between classes. Ultimately, their goals aren't all that different. And though freedom hasn't brought a Mercedes to every driveway, destruction of the wall made everyone's lives more fruitful.

                          Interesting  Timing

 Just before our arrival in Berlin The Guardian, a Liberal UK newspaper, after receiving classified material from a intelligence whistle-blower, revealed to the world that the U.S. government has been illegally collecting the private information of its citizens (in addition to others). I found this somewhat ironic, as the state funded Stasi museum was housed next door to our hotel. The collection of once classified GDR documents and archaic spy tools made me laugh. What the Stasi wouldn't have given to have the U.S. government's current spy
Cheeky Berlin artists project their views onto the American Embassy
technology. They'd have been in authoritarian heaven. It seems that our nation is suffering from acute amnesia, in addition to a manipulative media. I remember well the celebrations of freedom at 10 years old, watching walls crumble as oppressive governments passed into history. These moments shaped my life and world view. Free thought, free speech, free assembly, free trade, and most importantly, free movement. The U.S. was helping to lead the way to a new level of international, civil, independence. Alas, my understanding has proven dated, if not outright misguided, and as I write this a wall is under construction along the southern border of the U.S. and the Government continues tightening its grip on citizens' lives.

                                            Scattered Reminders of Oppressed Lives

There is much to see in Berlin, however, this is its best time machine.
 In addition to portions of the wall left along the river, and the addmission-free Stasi Museum, there was also a terrific, semi permanent, exhibition close to the hotel which helps document the past. From the exterior, Die Mauer appears as a 40 foot tall cylinder in the heart of town, however, the interior uses a collection of old photographs and artistic fillings to recreate a full scale point perspective panorama of what it would have looked like at the location 25 years ago.

It has been said that "Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it".  Fortunately, if somewhat perversely, wounds from the past are still fresh in Berlin and distrust of the powers that be are pervasive. It is no small coincidence that I felt more freedom here than anywhere in the United States. My, how the tables have turned. I reiterate the words of JFK, spoken in support of those trapped on the wrong side of The Wall, almost exactly fifty years ago, "All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin, and therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words, 'Ich bin ein Berliner".
                                                            Ich bin ein Berliner !
Who's watching you?