Posts Tagged ‘travel’


Posted in General on May 4th, 2013 by Eugene Finerman – 4 Comments

First, let me offer some travel hints for those of you planning a trip from Belarus to Utah.  Don’t count on a direct flight.  Air Belarus probably doesn’t get farther than Vilna.  At some point, you will miss a connecting flight.  A relative of a friend made it up all the way to Chicago before she found herself taking up residency at O’Hare Airport.  Until the next available flight, the lady had twelve hours of airport food and CNN overheads.  Since she doesn’t speak English, she might have thought that Wolfe Blitzer was intelligible.

When told this story, some sympathy was expected.  Nah…I have heard worse.  I have survived worse…

Out of college and with no prospects of a career, what could be a better time to take the Grand Tour of Europe.  I might “find myself”; if not, I was in a wonderful place to be lost.  From February to December of 1975, the shabby, shaggy younger me ranged throughout the continent.  It would be quicker to tell you the countries that I didn’t visit:  Ireland, Albania, Romania and Poland.  Yes, I even got to Russia, although that required joining an organized tour.  (You just didn’t show up at the border of the USSR and smile your way through.)

I generally traveled by train and, to avoid the cost of a hotel, I would travel by night.   That was my planned itinerary for my last day in Prague.  I would see a Smetana opera that evening, get to the railroad station and board the night train to West Germany.  Seven hours later I would be in Munich.  So, what could go wrong? 

At the last Czech train station before the German border, all the passengers were roused from the train.  The secret police no doubt was searching for aspiring defectors.  There were only a few passengers; we took our bags and were prodded into a fairly large, utilitarian room that served all the purposes of a train station.   At some point, the police search concluded; I didn’t hear screams or gunshots, so the inspection must have been uneventful.  No doubt in some Slavic language, there was an announcement that the passengers could return to the train.  But I don’t speak any Slavic language, and I didn’t notice the other passengers leaving the room.  I only realized at the last minute that my train was leaving.  I rushed out to the platform; the train was slowly moving and there was a possibility of jumping abroad.  However, I was somewhat deterred by the sight of guards with machine guns.  Here was my dilemma:  I could live to regret missing the train…or not live at all.

I decided to wait for the next train.  There certainly would be one.  The station master made use of his fingers and a schedule to tell me when that next train would be.  Unfortunately, I learned that there would be a slight wait of 18 hours.  Being stranded at a Czech border town at 2 in the morning does not have much allure.  My predicament made me a slight celebrity–and anecdote–at the station, and a cab driver offered in pidgin German and English to come to my rescue.  HE could drive me to the German border.  That certainly seemed preferable to 18 hours in stasis.  Of course, I agreed.

However, what he couldn’t explain–or didn’t wish to–was the exact nature of that Czech-German border.  So, when I left his cab and approached the Czech border crossing, I learned that the German crossing was just seven kilometers away.  A mere four-miles of no-man’s land at 3 in the morning; yes, I was also in the dark but there was a paved road for my convenience.  I certainly kept on it, since I didn’t wish to stray into any minefields that landscaped either side.  I imagine that there were a few sniperscopes on me as well; had one of the guards been in a grouchy mood, this story would be an incident rather than an anecdote.  To further assure the guards that I was an imbecile rather than a spy, I sang as loudly as I could.  Fortunately, I do have a good voice; so there would have been no aesthetic justification for shooting me.

At approximately 4:30 a.m., I reached the German crossing.  Yes, its guards looked at me with amazement; but as long as passport was in order, my sanity didn’t need to be.

And now you know my tale.

Bulgarian Memories

Posted in General on April 17th, 2009 by Eugene Finerman – 4 Comments

I just learned that my humor does not readily translate into Bulgarian. 

You may remember that I commemorated the battle of Kleidon.  (For most of you, it was also an introduction.)

For a Bulgarian reader, however, the story was all too familiar.  In a polite rebuke, she objected to my depiction of the battle between her ancestors and the Byzantines.  (Of course, her ancestors lost; she probably would have ignored me if the Bulgars had won.)  In fact, I had noted that history had a snobbish bias toward the “civilized” Byzantines, who behaved with memorable savagery to their Bulgar prisoners–blinding 15,000 of them and letting them grope their way home. 

Bulgaria would soon be part of the Byzantine Empire. Basil certainly earned the epithet “the Bulgar-Slayer.” Ironically, history looks at the Emperor with a certain respect and even approval. After all, the Byzantines were more erudite and sophisticated than the Bulgarians. The more civilized are always the good guys.

I explained that my humor may have been lost in translation and asked her what was the Bulgarian word for irony.  (Ironically, their word is “irony.”)  I reassured her of my respect for her country and told her what a wonderful time I had there when I was a shaggy vagabond traversing Europe.

What was so memorable about Bulgaria?  The people: they really spoiled me.  In 1975, Americans were rather rare in Eastern Europe and almost unknown in Bulgaria.  Why did I decide to go there?  The country was unavoidable if I intended to travel from Greece to Istanbul (and you know that I wouldn’t miss my beloved Constantinople).  You could get a visa at the border; apparently Bulgaria felt so overlooked that it was not worried about western spies.  Of course, the Iron Curtain country did impose some restrictions on me.  While there, I was expected to report to an Intourist Office every three days.  And believe it or not, that was my first encounter with Bulgarian hospitality. 

As I left the Sofia train station to make my way to the Intourist Office, I found myself confronted and confounded by the Cyrillic alphabet.  I could not read the street signs; I was instantly lost.  Someone at the train station  had told me what bus to take.  As I was struggling to figure out what the fare was, someone paid for the lost young American.  No one on the bus could speak English, but everyone was nodding and smiling.  Through some sort of sign language, they asked me where I was from.  And they were looking out for me, letting me know when I  had reached my stop.

Of course, you would expect the Intourist Office to be an obvious facade for the Secret Police, and I suppose anyone on the staff could have killed me with a single karate chop.  However, I have found myself more threatened by Tourist Bureaus in Austria and France.  No, the Bulgarians seemed very pleased by the presence of an actual American tourist.  (And someone did speak English.)  Intourist’s services included arranging a place for me to stay–yes, the better to spy on me–and I was booked into a boarding house.  I would be staying with a real Bulgarian family.

On the way to the boarding house, I got lost again.  In the Cyrillic miasma, I took the wrong bus.  My fellow passengers included two college students, one of whom spoke some French, so at least I could understand the depths of my predicament.  Rather than abandon the lost American, they got off the bus and personally guided me to my boarding house.  My Francophone rescuer did ask one thing of me:  to meet them in Sofia’s Central Park in two days.  His girlfriend spoke excellent English and she would be our translator; he had so much that he wanted to ask the real and rare  American.

I stayed with a family of four: parents and two adolescent children.  Once again, my nationality conferred a charisma on me.  Everyone had questions for me, and one of the teenagers did speak English.  The landlady offered me free meals, so I gratefully accepted the accompanying interrogation.  There was a dichotomy in the nature of the questions.  The young Bulgarians, raised on Communism, wanted to know when the American workers would collectivize our factories; I told them, “Never, the unions would not allow it.”  Their parents, remembering the Hollywood films before the World War, asked me about their favorite actors.  I had to tell them that Tyrone Powers was dead but I could reassure them that Alice Faye was alive and well. 

Somehow I did find my way to Sofia’s Central Park, and there were my two rescuers along with English-speaking girlfriend.  We talked for hours, and the general topic was the arts.  They were very excited about an American film recently shown in Sofia.  The Bulgarian government evidently thought that “The Godfather” was a perfect portrait of American life.  I agreed that the film was excellent but not quite typical of most Americans; they suspected as much.  They wanted to know what I knew of Bulgarian literature; you can guess my awkward response.  I did tell them that Russian writers were very popular in college curricula.  Perhaps a little vicarious Slavic glory was better than none.  They told me how popular Ernest Hemingway was in Bulgaria.  They were surprised to learn that Hemingway was out of fashion in American academia: he was considered sexist and simplistic.

Given their knowledge of Hemingway, I was intrigued to know what had passed the government censors.  I asked them about a sympathetic Russian character in “For Whom the Bell Tolls .”  In my unexpurgated edition of the novel, Hemingway wrote as an epilogue that the Russian would return to the Soviet Union and be killed in the purges.  I asked my Bulgarian friends if that detail was in their edition of the novel.  Their answer was “No.”   They did not question or challenge me on this point.  On the contrary, they said nothing but nodded, accepting both my honesty and its political awkwardness.  The rest of our conversation must have been innocuous because I can’t remember it, but I have not forgotten them or the many other people who showed me their warmth and interest.  (Even one of the Intourist staff gossiped with me about “Dr. Zhivago”; she heard that it was a beautiful film.) 

I had planned to spend three days in Sofia.  I stayed five.  How could I leave when I felt like the guest of honor?