Jul 172017

The following is the second part of the travelogue I wrote following a two-week trip to Israel and the Balkans 7/24/04-8/08/04.  Slightly edited a few times since.

After leaving Israel I landed in Frankfurt Saturday evening and had a few hours to catch my night train to Vienna. I dug out the reservation I had made the previous week and found the car with my berth. The compartment was empty, except for me. I made my bed and went to sleep.

Do I need to continue here? Or can you tell that something is about to go wrong?

The train stops in other major cities on the way to its destination. In Mannheim a family got on and came into my compartment. That was fine, there was room for five more people. Unfortunately there were 6 new people. And I was the one in the wrong place. Actually, not so much the wrong place as the wrong time. I was traveling on July 31, and apparently the reservation had been made for that exact spot – on August 31. Fortunately the extra person agreed to sleep elsewhere so I got to stay where I was. Just so much for best laid plans and all.

I only had an hour in Vienna to change trains, so after buying some food for the journey I got on board for the very long trip through the tip of Austria, into Hungary with a stop in Budapest (tourism officials boarded the train, handing out maps and making hotel reservations before arrival), before heading south into Serbia. Following what I think was the Danube the terrain was flat and unremarkable, although full of agriculture (and a lot of sunflowers). The train was on schedule when it hit the Serbian border but then went very slowly into Belgrade. I thought it was interesting that by the time we arrived, new cars had been added. Cars with destination signs saying “Moscow-Belgrade” and “Kiev-Belgrade.” I definitely wasn’t in Kansas anymore… Continue reading »

Jul 172017

I wrote the following after a trip to Israel, Germany, and the Balkans 7/24/04-8/08/04.

Everything is connected to everything else. On a plane the year before I’d met my friend Jon. He and I stayed in touch, and when earlier this summer he said to me, “My girlfriend and I are going to Israel, would you like to come?” I naturally said “Sure!”

It was yet another trip booked with frequent flier miles, 75,000 of them. The plan was to fly Lufthansa from Washington to Tel Aviv via Frankfurt. (The Star Alliance is indeed a handy thing.) The ticket permitted a stopover in the transfer city, so I booked a weeklong layover in Frankfurt on the return from Israel. I figured I could always find something to do in Europe for a week, even if it was just going to France and hanging out on the beach, practicing my French. Continue reading »

Jul 152017

This is the third installment describing my trip to Poland.  It was also originally posted in October 2005 as three separate posts, which have been edited down into this single one.

After leaving Suwalki I returned to Warsaw.  Happily I could easily find my hotel, which turned out to have its quirks.  It was basically fine and I’d stay there again (location, location, location) but the interiors of the rooms had some questionable aesthetics. Lots of brown… I felt like I’d stepped into someone’s den from the 1970s.

The room did have a TV, which I stayed up too late watching. There was a great musical cabaret show on a Polish channel, which featured a string quartet that reminded me of Canadian Brass (classical music expressed with a sense of humor). Then I watched a bit of Mad About You dubbed in German. Unfortunately it turns out that there’s a vast difference between Paul Reiser saying in his sarcastic New York accent, “Excuse me?” and a dubbed Germanic voice instead saying, “Entschuldigung?” Still, even poorly translated this show was better than the German sitcom that seemed to be one long stupid joke about the husband failing to have an erection. Meanwhile, on BBC World, the sky was still falling. OK, I know there are bad things in the world and it’s good that someone tells us about them, but, still, the BBC news coverage was a bit much. The most uplifting segment I saw them show during the whole two days I got to watch it was on advances in artificial limbs, which is only a happy subject if you don’t stop to consider why people actually need artificial limbs.

Then another Polish channel had a movie that was mostly in Polish but subtitled in English. It wasn’t very good. It was one of those morose European flicks full of melodramatic silences and a darkened city full of no one but the movie’s sinister characters. I wonder, though, if this is not because European filmmakers can’t afford the extras needed to make a place look populated? I’ve seen French films like this too, although they usually include some gloomy dialog where the protagonist waif explains how her parents had both killed themselves and that’s why she’s throwing herself into the clutches of an emotionally-scarred man three times her age. Or at least the one I watched while in Poland was like this…

Anyway, in the Polish movie at one point one bad guy suddenly started speaking to the other bad guy in English. I’m not sure why; they seemed to both be Polish. Maybe they thought it sounded tougher? They thought wrong. The older one, his accent was ok, but his pacing was off. Perhaps he couldn’t really speak English and he learned his lines phonetically, which would explain the erratic diction. I wouldn’t make fun of someone’s language limitations, but I think it’s perfectly legitimate to criticize the filmmaker who wrote his dreadful dialog and directed the performance. The “sit your ass down!” demand was delivered so out of sync from the way any English-speaking heavy would have actually said it that I was surprised the other bad guy didn’t start giggling. (I did.) Then he punctuated his threat with, “Dig it?” I get the sense that the filmmaker perhaps once stayed in my hotel and got confused about what decade it was…

The room also included breakfast, which was an elaborate buffet: cold cuts, all sorts of cheeses, hard boiled eggs, poached eggs, scrambled eggs, cereals, fruit, coffee cake, breads with butter and jams, sausage and some other hot meats, juice, tea, coffee… Sadly however I only had about 20 minutes to enjoy it in order to catch my next train to Krakow. Continue reading »

Jul 142017

The following post continues the description of my visit to Poland that I took during my time as a law student in Germany.  Originally written as multiple posts in October 2005 and is the portion that best explains why I was taking the trip.

I did it again: I picked a spot on the map, and then went to go see what it was like.

The place I went to see was Suwalki, a town in the very northeast of Poland. In fact, it’s so northeastern that it hasn’t always been part of Poland. Within the past two centuries it’s also been claimed by Russia and Lithuania.

It’s a bit off the beaten trail. My Lonely Planet Eastern Europe book didn’t even list it, and it takes at least 5 hours to get to by train. (However, that says more about the speed of the train than the distance… It goes pretty fast to Bialystok, which is about two-thirds the way there, then turns into a local train that goes much slower the rest of the way. Plus they have to change the engine at a certain point because the tracks are no longer electrified.) But I had a particular reason for being there. Continue reading »

Jul 112017

When I was a law student in Germany I mostly stayed put in Germany so I could experience a German life.  But I did take a few trips, including this one to Poland.  Originally written October 14, 2005.

I’d forgotten how nice night trains can be. I used to take them regularly, especially as part of my marathon post-graduation 6-week trip through Europe in 1996. On that trip I think I took about 14 night trains within a month. (Actually, it was probably more like 15 if we include the Rome fiasco… plus there were also the night boats between Sweden and Finland.) My thinking always was, you have to sleep and you have to travel, so why not do both at the same time? Plus the couchettes cost no more than a hostel bed, and sleeping on the train saved me the trouble of having to find alternate lodging. In any case, this thinking is why I opted to take a night train to Poland for this trip instead of other means. Continue reading »

Jul 082017

The following travelogue was originally posted on a personal website that has long gone dormant.  It describes a trip taken May 30, 2004-June 5, 2004 and was originally written immediately thereafter (with an edit the following year).  I’ve given it a minor edit now (mostly to change tenses) and republished it here.

It all seemed like such a good idea at the time. A friend of mine from law school, Megan, had an internship the summer after our first year in Cambodia. For her such a position wasn’t too exotic: she’d already lived in Cambodia, having taught English there, and as a result she speaks Khmer (the local language). I, on the other hand, had never been to Asia at all, so when she said, “I’m spending two weeks in Thailand before I start; why don’t you come with me?” it seemed like the perfect excuse to finally get to visit the world’s largest continent. Sixty-thousand frequent flyer miles later, I had a ticket booked. Continue reading »

Mar 112013

Sometimes in life you just need to run off to Paris. So I did.

It was certainly time: I hadn’t set foot in France in 10 years, which was particularly odd given that I had twice lived there, once for a month in Provence and once for a better part of a year in Paris. That’s when I got the gift of French language skills. Unfortunately, being away from France for so long those skills had necessarily gotten really dusty, and for various reasons, now was the right time to find them again.

So I just spent a little over a week in Paris. I wasn’t a tourist. I didn’t see a single museum or historic site (at least not purposefully; in Paris you kind of can’t avoid seeing them accidentally). Instead I sublet an apartment and settled into my old home.

In many ways it felt like only yesterday since I’d been there, but the truth is that I left it nearly 15 years ago, and over and over I was reminded by how much has changed since. Back when I lived there they had JUST converted to the Euro, but still used French Francs. They had JUST built the 14th line of the Metro, but not the next several RER lines or tramways. The Internet had only just become popular back then, during that Christmas when everyone got “Internet in a box” (the hot item back then was a box containing a 14.4 modem, CD with Netscape, and a subscription to Wanadoo), but otherwise it was a country still attached to Minitel.

Back then I knew the rare places where you could find sushi (mostly in the 5th and a few spots in the 6th), but now it’s on every block, while bistros and other local cuisine has become much harder to come by. And now when people “take a coffee” it may well be from a Starbucks or McDonald’s “McCafe.”

It’s also much harder now to practice one’s French – English is everywhere. The Internet is everywhere, even in the Metro. What I noted about Germany seems true for France too: pan-Europeanism has replaced a lot of local cultural identity.

But, as a French friend reassured me, that is what the French want. Tastes have changed, he said. What you now see in Paris is what they have changed into. And to be sure, plenty of profoundly French hallmarks remain. There are still boulangerie-patisseries and boucheries on every block. Even supermarket food is French in style and reflects the local demand for quality and French ingredients. The Metro runs well, except when it doesn’t, just as it always has. The streets are still French, the buildings still French, and the people still French. But French life now includes a kind of global cosmopolitan openness it didn’t so much have before.

As well as far more bagels, donuts, cupcakes and burritos than there used to be.

Oct 062009

Rwanda is sort of odd as a tourist definition. Its main city, Kigali, is a fairly clean, temperate, and orderly city by African standards, but it’s spread out over several hills and valleys with no tourist-friendly mass transit system. Of course, apart from the genocide museum, there’s not much to see in the city. It does have many quality hotels and restaurants (it even has a casino), but these mostly cater to the foreign ex-pats living and working in the country.

Rwanda’s main tourist attractions lie outside the central capital, in the further corners of the country. To the east is Akagera, the portion of the country most similar to Kenya and Tanzania and home to the elephants, giraffes, hippos, crocodiles, et al. that one would expect to see on a safari. To the southwest is the lush rainforest of Nyungwe Forest, and to the northwest Parc National des Volcans, which is home to Rwanda’s share of the volcanic range that runs through the Rift Valley section of middle Africa. (Rwanda’s volcanoes are all extinct, but some of the ones on the other side of the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo remain active.) Meanwhile, running along much of the country’s western border is Lake Kivu, a sizeable lake separating Rwanda from the DRC. Several cities and towns dot the Rwandan coastline, including Gisenyi to the north.

Unfortunately I never made it to Akagera. By the time my schedule settled down it was too late to research and organize affordable transportation. (Nothing in Rwanda is more than a few hours away from Kigali, but unless you are prepared to take local buses or matatus, which still requires figuring out, the other options are to take an organized tour or organize your own transport. I think the latter, especially if you join up with others, makes the most sense. Private car rental may be possible in Kigali, but for sanity’s sake it probably is a better idea to hire a driver with a car.) But for the second weekend we headed to points west.

Continue reading »

 Posted by at 9:55 am
Jan 142009

Passing through immigration at Heathrow got a little tense. The agent was querying me on my reason for being in England. The truth was that I, anglophilic lawyer that I am, was there to meet and network with as many of my UK peers as I could, and was really excited about it. Was that business or pleasure? I don’t know!

But then I told her I was also in town to see the RSC production of Hamlet, and after the obligatory conversation raving about David Tennant I was allowed into the country.

Ever since my Stephen Fry-induced spur of the moment Christmas trip in 2007 (helpful immigration tip #2: mention his name fondly at the border, and they will also let you in) I’ve become a full-blown anglophile. But not just in the normal, cultural ways — in a way that completely overlaps with my new lawyerly profession. If it involves England and law, I am like moth to flame. I buy books, attend symposia, follow its news, follow its policy, meet its professionals… I basically just spent a week in London taking meetings with UK lawyers, and it was the best vacation ever.

Continue reading »

 Posted by at 9:13 am