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Nikolai & the Vampire

February 19, 2018

Well, it’s been a couple-three years now since I forswore the life of an English teacher abroad, living out of a suitcase. I now dwell in a hundred year-old house in Missouri, where I work in a pharmacy and record music. Enough time has passed and, more importantly, my colleagues from Kazakhstan have all moved on to other postings, leaving me free to relate some tales I hesitated to share while they were still in country.

To refresh a bit: towards the end of my year in Kazakhstan, I shared a once-grand flat with high ceilings and peeling wallpaper in the center of town with Jonathan, who just happened to be from Iowa, where I also lived for a few years before venturing abroad. We became (and remain) fast friends. (The whiplash-inducing culture shock of phase-shifting between the American Midwest and Central Asia is something one probably has to experience to understand. It makes a grand start to a friendship with someone one likes anyway.) Jon’s marriage unravelled over there and I got the shit kicked out of me in the street (another story for later) so we were both a bit shell-shocked. We drank a lot of vodka, played cards, and counted the days until we could hopefully escape with our lives.

apt window

The view from our livingroom window.

Our last night in Karaganda, J-Moines & I were rather nervous. Why? because the school paid us in cash—no records of any kind, rather sketchy—which we had converted into American dollars. Although we hadn’t squirreled away fortunes in first world terms, still, we were holding what most locals would consider an obscene windfall for standing around pointing at dry erase boards for 9 months.  I had around $4000 in twenties. It was technically possible to get money transferred out of the country electronically, but it’s also technically possible to terraform Mars. My trips to the bank had convinced me that it wasn’t worth it; endless sitting, waiting, being glowered at, being told it couldn’t be done without this or that official stamp which had to be got across town, being informed of arbitrary limits and opaque procedures… just carrying the cash to the bank on public transit was enough to give me the fantods. I gave up and hid the money around the flat.

And of course, the night before we left, I couldn’t recollect exactly where I’d hid it, because I’d moved it several times. There were a couple of hours of frantic searching. It was almost as bad as that time I put my David Bowie concert tickets inside a book and forgot which book. I’d take a slug of vodka, wrack my brain, tear up the closet, then slump into the sagging couch with my head in my hands and Try. To. Think.


Jonathan, looking just like we felt.

We stayed up most of the night, talking, too nervous to sleep. You see, the Vampire had fired Nikolai… who knew what he was capable of?

Let me back up. The Vampire was our nickname for our lead teacher, an irredeemably evil Slovenian woman with an alabaster complexion, who hated and feared the native English speaking teachers. She schemed furiously to get us fired, or at least sidelined, sidling up to the owner of the school and whispering slander into her ear at every opportunity. It was a black day when she became our supervisor. Fortunately, the woman who owned the school had the good business sense to realize that having native speakers on staff was essential to the viability of the concern, even if one didn’t want to have more than were absolutely needed, on account of the expense. As Jonathan observed, we were kind of display window candy. Our role was to attract customers; our actual knowledge of the language and teaching skills were irrelevant.

Nikolai was the school’s “driver.” And by driver, I mean local fixer, i.e., payer of bribes, etc. He spoke perhaps 5 words of English and was loathe to do any actual driving. His gold-toothed grin evoked an underworld charm. We knew that he procured our lodgings. You’d meet him in a hallway somewhere and he’d hand you a key, grin at you and then amble lazily away. Whatever else he did I have no idea, but he was apparently necessary, as he was on salary.

Now the Vampire, in the process of consolidating her power, felt threatened by Nikolai for some reason. She wanted her own cadre of hand-picked helpers and was keen to winnow away those whose tenure preceded her reign of terror. It took some months, but she finally got him axed on some pretext, which gave us shivers, because it seemed to indicate that her hand was strengthening.

What worried us on that last night was that we had to assume that Nikolai still had keys to our flats. He also knew how much we made, knew when we were leaving, and knew we got paid in cash.

Now, who knew if Nikolai was a criminal? Maybe he was a decent, honest fellow, cobbling together a living with his local contacts and street smarts. Or perhaps he was a wife-beating, alcoholic, compulsive gambler, with mobsters breathing down his neck. There was no way to know. We were like infants who couldn’t possibly understand what the adults were talking about in the other room. But it certainly seemed possible that he or some friends of his might well show up and pistol-whip us out of our clammy wads of cash.

This would have been particularly picaresque if it had happened before I could find my cash. I rather doubted they would believe me when I told them I didn’t know where it was. Lacking the English to say, “Do you take me for a fool?” I expect our gangster would have just hit me harder, leaned in closer (me being tied to a chair), breathed cigarette smoke and vodka fumes into my face and venomously hissed the single word, moooooneeeey.

Lest you think my addled brain was overheated, let me add in defense of my paranoia that our esteemed colleague Stokes had been robbed… and then found the investigating policeman wearing his watch. (He being a foreigner, it was returned with a grin.) And a young woman in our circle was slammed into by a drunk driver, who turned out to be a member of the moneyed elite. This charming son of privilege laughingly threw wads of money at the policeman… at the scene of the crime, in full view of a gathering crowd. The policeman then protected the drunk driver from the angry witnesses. Later, all the security cam video from area businesses was found to have mysteriously evaporated. The cab driver, in the hospital, asked our friend not to visit him anymore because he thought it wasn’t safe for her. She was not a foreigner and so was less insulated from the casual brutality of the place. The milieu did not exactly reek of the rule of law.

But the unthinkable (which I couldn’t stop thinking about) never came to pass. I finally found my money, I disremember where… under some boards or something.

We slept a few hours at last and then, aching, hollow-eyed, still drunk, climbed into rattling cabs. Jonathan took a different flight, laden as he was with two cats, and heading for a different destination in the US. (Each cat had their own little cat passport, which cost a fortune in questionable “surcharges.”) When I got to the airport, long beofre dawn,  it was silent, dark, and freezing. I boarded without having to declare my cash and I was even able to carry on my guitar. (I was prepared to give it away to someone in the terminal if necessary.)

Except for a snarling customs official in the Moscow airport, my encounters with authority in that part of the world were over with. I landed without incident in Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport, where, tired but happy, standing in line, eager to see my friends and family again, chatting with other garrulous Americans, my passport was stolen.

Igor and Olga

Igor & Olga, getting ready to emigrate to America.

They let me in, anyway.


Explaining The Silence

September 27, 2014

Good heavens, I haven’t written in this journal for almost 10 months? Well, it’s not for lack of things to write about… it’s more that the things I would like to write are not necessarily appropriate to toss out into the public sphere. Let me explain.

Being an English-only speaking expat in a fairly remote Central Asian city, I lived in a very small and rather intense bubble, where the main action was in the relationships between a tight-knit group of eccentric people, thrown together by chance and the consequences of a common tendency toward adventurousness… one might even say recklessness. These little dramas absorbed most of my attention. Because I never really picked up any Russian and because I did not feel safe on the streets—in fact, I got mugged, which definitely colored my view of the place—my interactions with locals and the country in which I was living were much more limited than in Poland.


We played a lot of cards in Kazakhstan.

I need to go through my personal journals (which are quite copious) and see what I can drag into the light. Perhaps there is some way to give an idea of the texture of events without being a jerk. After all, I don’t know how I’d feel about one of my friends writing about my peccadilloes on the internet where everyone can see. Not that I would write anything intentionally unkind about my friends, it’s just that the things I find interesting are not usually what people share with strangers.

In the meantime, here’s a general update on what I’ve been doing since returning. I white-knuckled it, finished my contract, and flew back to the states in the beginning of June. I had gained 30 pounds from unrestrained alcohol consumption and comfort eating. I did manage to save a little money, enough to stay afloat a while while I planned my next move, if I was quite frugal. (What seems like a lot of money in Kazakhstan is chump change in the US.)

I first spent a month in Houston with my dear friends Jeromy & Vicki, people who are like family to me and make me feel safe and loved. I was very glad to be back in the states, much more than I ever expected I would be. I was a bit shell-shocked and needed some time to decompress. I worked a little on music, took care of their cats while they went to LA for two weeks, bought a cheap bicycle and rode around Houston… just generally recalibrated. I loved going to the HEB and seeing all the food I recognized.

After that, I took a road trip with my mom, from Texas all the way up to Rockland, Maine, to go sailing on the Victory Chimes, a three-masted sailing ship. We camped all the way there and back and had a great time. My mom is a great traveler. Here she is in her 70s and she’s still camping, sailing, cruising, just getting out there and covering all the territory she can. I come by my rambling honest.

Camping with mom.

Camping with mom.

Mom dropped me off in Fulton, Missouri, which is now home base. I’m inheriting (via mom) the little house my grandmother used to live in. I spent a month cleaning house, fixing the toilet & water heater, pulling weeds, unpacking my own scanty belongings, sending a few of Grandma’s things off to family who might like them, and finally, having a yard sale to dispose of the rest. It was a pretty epic task… if Grandma liked something, she didn’t have one, she had 5 or 10 of the same thing. Egg beaters, yardsticks, copies of The Bridges of Madison County, toilet scrubbers, sticks for stirring paint… you name it. Multiples of everything were randomly distributed all over the house, buried under heaps of dish rags, doilies, woven baskets, and crumbling wreaths. The whole process left me more determined than ever to minimize my own debris field. If I don’t need it and use it… it goes, baby.

The living room, the night before the Great Grandma Yard Sale.

The living room, the night before the Great Grandma Yard Sale.

After that, I drove down to Texas, where I’m currently house-sitting for mom while she travels with a friend. I’m just outside of Austin, where I lived for 20 years. I go into town and see friends or my sister once or twice a week, but mostly I’m taking it easy and enjoying all the nothing I have to do every day. I’m very focused on losing the weight I gained in Kazakhstan; I’ve lost 16 lbs. or so already. I count calories and exercise every day. I have about two more weeks until I head home to Missouri.

Below is an example of how spend my time… a little thing I did today, number two million in my series of recordings of the weird little riffs that pop up in my brain, usually in the morning, like algae covering the surface of a pond. I have to get one of those things they use to clean swimming pools and scrape the music/algae off the top of my consciousness or I won’t be able to think anything else that day.

I got a job. (My buddy Abdullah in Poland helped me out with the contact.) I’m teaching English over the phone and/or computer to people in France. It’s not the most lucrative gig I’ve ever had, but it’s very flexible; I can make my own hours and work as much or as little as I like. I can also do it anywhere I have an internet connection, which definitely suits my fidgety ways. I could even go to Poland for 180 days on a Schengen visa and teach from there if I wanted to. Or Budapest!

But that’s in the future. Right now I’m looking to settle down for a little while, save a little money, collect some musical instruments, reconstruct my recording studio… just generally engage in nesting behavior.

My little house

My little house.

And I will write about the second half of my time in Kazakhstan. A soon as I figure out how.

Karaganda Scrapbook

December 28, 2013



Well, I still find myself incapable of writing an orderly account of my time here. I will take the lazy way out and just annotate some photos.

DSC08185When I arrived in Kazakhstan, after two months of loafing away my money in Poland, I had about $10. Fortunately, my job gave me a care package of sorts. I had a bit to eat until I could get an advance. This is what I lived on that first weekend.

DSC08203My neighborhood. My building is on the left and my corner shop is on the right.

DSC08205I can read these signs on my street now. You would pronounce those something along the lines of  “Yerubayev” and “Yermyekov.” Unfortunately, they off by 90 degrees.

DSC08207You have to go into that blue and white building and go into some tunnels to cross the street here. 

DSC08427DSC08429I actually like the tunnels. There are little shops down there where you can buy your needfuls real cheap. 

DSC08227I didn’t understand this at first and couldn’t get back into my building except by hanging around until someone went in, then shadowing them. Eventually I learned I had a little electronic thing on my key fob.

DSC08231If you like weird old vehicles, Kazakhstan is an interesting place. This poor guy was crank starting this old bus.

DSC08236Hoisting a hefty tankard with me mate Stokey Pete.

DSC08243Most streets are coal black at night, but you could sit down and read a book outside ome of these government buildings. Not that I would recommend it… you don’t want anything to do with the security guys.

DSC08297I was very excited to get my packages from Poland, the ones I shipped myself from the post office in the rynek in Żory.

DSC08299My stuff! Clothes to wear!

DSC08308This is the can opener I found in my flat.

DSC08310My proud handiwork.

DSC08313Once again, Cowboy Beans to the rescue.

DSC08314Here’s something I know how to open.

DSC08337Bread here is cheap and tasty. This cost about 50 cents.

DSC08344The street where I live.

DSC08380One of my students took me and my friends out for an evening of drink and song. We had a great time. I heard lounge music sung phonetically by non-English speakers. I couldn’t believe how well they did it.

DSC08425A note on my door, telling me, as it turned out, that the gas would be off that day.

DSC08440There is some Soviet style architecture… statues of workers, imposing columns, etc.

DSC08442 DSC08451Now there’s a guy who knows where he’s going.

DSC08480The rynok (market) is a mile or two from my house. I love open air markets.

DSC08526 DSC08564Went with some friends to the museum of the Karlag, the old Soviet prison camp on which this place was founded. This is an effigy of an intake officer.

DSC08587My friends and fellow teachers, outside a pub near where we took Russian lessons.

DSC08594Music in the air… quarter notes, to be precise.

DSC08611View of the street from inside a marshrutka. You can rarely actually see anything outside… you generally have to know where you’re going and count stops.

DSC08613These old Ladas are everywhere. I love that they keep them running. I have ridden in one or two as taxis.

DSC08624One night this gloriously goth coffin appeared in the stairwell outside my flat. It was gone the next morning.

DSC08634The beginning of winter was not good for safe mobility. Until the snow cover got thick, what you had was ice, and lots of it. Some mornings, with the wind gusting, I could actually wind sail across patches of it.

DSC08638After my second paycheck, I bought a guitar at the local music shop. It’s made in China, but it’s not bad. Cost about $180.

DSC08675Outside a restaurant with friends.

So those are a few snapshots. The truth is most of my life here is just work. On weekends, I putter about my flat, cleaning up, decompressing, planning lessons.

Over the winter break, a fellow teacher and I are going to make the 18-hour train journey to Almaty. I will try to keep a real journal of that one. We should see some different stuff.

A UFO In Kazakhstan

December 7, 2013

Well, I have been worse than terrible about updating this blog. I’ve been in Kazakhstan over three months now and have written precisely nothing.

Where to start? One reason I haven’t written is that I’ve been very busy with work. This school uses a different set of teaching materials than my last school, an entirely different approach, and, though I think it’s very good for my development as a teacher, there is a great deal of preparation and planning required.

Kazakhstan is very different from Poland, of course. For one thing, people speak Russian here. Despite the similarity to Russian, my Polish is pretty much useless. I haven’t put much energy into learning Russian, just the things I need to direct a taxi driver or ask for something in a shop. I can sound out written words now and that often helps, as there are lots of words similar to English, Polish, and other languages I am more familiar with. But still, I can barely function. I have to point and mime a lot.

There’s no way I’m going to write a coherent entry about the last three months at the moment, so I think I’ll just post a few pictures. And soon I will try to organize my thoughts a bit.


Winter is here. That wind is ferocious. I’m okay so far… I’ve got my GRIZZLY FORCE coat and some good ski gloves. It was around 15-20 F when I left my flat this morning at 10:00.

A shopping mall. Shopping malls are the hub of public life in Karaganda, as far as I can tell. I guess there are also sporting events but I would hesitate before attending one. I’d be nervous in the crowd.

Looking out my kitchen window. I have no idea if the people across the way can see in my windows at night, because of these cheap sheer curtains I’ve got. I just assume they can.

A Typical Work-Week Morning…

Breakfast. Notice that it is utterly black outside my window.

I’ve come to like Turkish coffee. I actually like the grit.

I get to the bus stop around 8:15 and it begins to get light.

A marshrutka… that’s Russian for ‘death trap sardine can.’

Congo? Sure, yeah, I can hear the howler monkeys and feel the sweat dripping off me.

Today (Saturday)…

I got out before noon this morning, which is rare for me on a Saturday. Went to Ankara, the fast food joint, where a couple of my fellow teachers were cramming for the Russian lessons I no longer bother with. I chatted with them, read a bit, then went over to a couple of malls to look at music gear.

Somehow I have missed up until now that there is an abandoned amusement park, right by places I shop all the time.

I saw a UFO today.

Everywhere I go, (from Illinois to China), I find eerie graveyards of merriment.

They used to put the kids they didn’t like in CAR X.

“Eep! I’ve been shot!”

That is one sinister looking caterpillar. He looks like he’d sell you a railroad car full of Kalashnikovs, collect the money, then rat you out to the security services and take back the guns.

Something terrible happened here.

More soon.

This Year’s Paper Chase + Random Warsaw Photos

July 20, 2013

I heard some good news from my job; I’ve got my official papers of invitation to work in Kazakhstan.  I need to find a print shop where I can print them out.  I rode a rental bike out to the embassy yesterday, so I know where it is now.  Once I have my visa and my flight is booked, I will be at liberty to roam for the rest of the summer.

For now, I’m just walking and bicycling all over Warszawa.  I got on google maps just now and figured that yesterday I walked 8.6 km/5.3 miles and bicycled 15 km/9.3 miles.

In the meantime, here are some pictures of how I have been passing the time.

One of the many cool places I have discovered is the aptly named Bibliomania, a musty shop so crammed with books you can barely squeeze through the unsteady, disordered stacks. 

Best ever pulp fiction title? One whole zloty.

Another one zloty gem.  It’s a 1945 Armed Services Edition.  It’s about a kid from the wrong side of the tracks, drifting in a lifeboat with a nurse and a dangerous man after his Merchant Marine ship was sunk by a U-Boat. He has nothing to do but think back on his life and how everything went wrong.  Really solid hard-boiled writing.  I read 50 pages of it over a beer right after buying it..

Whoever’s bicycle this is, I have a crush on her.


One of dozens of lovely little parks all over Warsaw.


Green space in Warsaw.





The underside of the bridge feels like a cathedral. A cathedral with graffiti, but still.


Weirdly, underneath one of the bridges, there are shops and pubs. Like this one selling telescopes, microscopes, and other scopes.




I was quite excited to see the sign “torby” and to surmise correctly that it was a purse shop. I can’t remember the word for shopping bag, but I can remember “torba,” which is a lady’s bag.

Free Polish lesson: NA WYNOS = take out. NA MIESCJU = for here.

Miasto Gadajacych Głów, or City of Talking Heads, across from the main train station, is a very cool joint.  I wandered into it before I read about it online.  Last night I met some Polish guys there with fantastic English.  We drank and talked all night and then went someplace else.  I got a walking tour of downtown Warszawa from a local who told me about how it had changed, what kind of businesses used to be in the old buildings, stuff like that.  Unfortunately, I didn’t have my camera with me.

A big, fat book on Polish history and big, fat, spicy falafel… what else could a guy ask for?

Sometimes a line in a book is so great you have to take a picture of it.  This is from An Incident at Krechetovka Station by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.


Poster art is alive and well in Warsaw. Lots of first rate graphics on the street.

I bet The Crucible kicks ass in Polish.



Amusing warning label on a rental bike.

My current neighborhood falafel hutch, around the corner from my hostel. 7 zl. and super delicious and filling.

So I’m thoroughly enjoying passing a leisurely summer in this fascinating city. I could easily live here.

Tree Eats Kite: Details Below

July 18, 2013

I’m passing the time in Warsaw, waiting to get my visa.  People say Warsaw isn’t pretty, but I disagree. I think that’s only true if you stay in your car. It’s great for walking or bicycling. There’s more green space here than in any other city of this size I have ever seen. I’ve been walking miles and miles every day.

I’ve also done a lot of bicycle riding.  They have a bicycle rental scheme here that is cheap and convenient.  You go to one of dozens of stations, punch your code into the terminal, and take a bike,  If you return it to any of the other stations in under an hour it only costs a zloty… 30 cents! I’ve ridden all over the city.

The other day I went down to the river to fly my kite.

On the way there. I saw a dead bee trapped in a spider web.

I got my kite up in the air… waaay up in the air.  I had tied together 6 or 7 lengths of kite string from various kites I have had over the years.
And then… SNAP… the string broke.  It wasn’t the knots I tied, it was that I had used really light string from cheap kites to fly a fairly sturdy, heavy kite.  It actually held while I flew it and only broke when I began reeling it in.

I watched it float and bob on the air gracefully. It drifted clear across the Wisła. I filmed it with my little camera, but the resolution was not high enough to capture the tiny speck disappearing into the trees in the distance.  I could barely see it.

When I was pretty sure I had mentally landmarked where it landed, I headed off down the road to the Siekierkowski bridge, a good kilometer away..

See my kite? (Picture taken from the bridge.)

Thar she blows. (Same picture, close up.)

I crossed the bridge and went under.  It’s a park down there and there are paths, but my kite was in an area accessible only by pushing through the high reeds by the river.


There’s an important clue to the whereabouts of my kite here.  See it?

Same picture, close up.  The string!06

So I tugged on it, without much hope.  I know from experience that when a kite is snagged in a tree, the best string in the world will break before your kite gets free.

Tug, tug, tug…

And of course it did snap.


It’s easily 50 feet off the ground.  The tree that it belongs to now is unclimbable, except by insects, squirrels, and small monkeys.  Since there aren’t any small monkeys in Poland and I don’t know how to train insects or squirrels, I suppose it shall remain there.  So long, kite.  You were a good kite.  Sorry I didn’t give you the string you deserved.

It’s okay; it was just a dime store kite.  I’m in good spirits.  My friend Robert Pierson will be in Warsaw soon.  It’ll be great to see an old friend.

Winter Travel Report, Part II: The Weathered Splendor Of Budapest

July 12, 2013

Well, it has been six months since I visited Budapest, but I'm at last getting around to writing it up. I have a few notes in my journal and perhaps the photos will shake a few memories loose from the dusty library shelves of my mind.

Vienna was clean-scrubbed and high-toned, a city made safe for plastic-wielding mall shoppers. Budapest is very different. From the moment we stepped off the train and into the into the railway station, it was clear that this is the old eastern Europe.

The Budapest railway station.

First view of the city.

It was a hike of several kilometers to our hostel, through canyon-like streets of coal-caked old buildings.  It was cold.  We walked quickly.  I didn't shoot many pictures.

When we got to the hostel, a Bacchanalian raiding company was forming, with party-people from all over the world—Japan, Brazil, Australia—all gearing up for a night out.  We got swept up in it.

I have no idea who this woman is.

This, mind you, was at the BEGINNING of the evening.

I was fascinated by the entrances to the subway system.  They just seem like portals to a dream world or something.

Magyar is very unusual among European languages. It is most closely related to some central Asian tongues.

The woman on the left is Sally; she staying at our hostel.  The guy is a Hungarian who attached himself to our party.  I ended up talking to him for quite a while.  He was clearly a well-educated young man and spoke several languages.  He told me a lot about the language and history of Hungary. I got drunk and forgot most of what he said, but I do have a strong impression of a rich and literate culture that is somewhat oblique to the flow of history, as seen by those of us in the bosom of the Great Powers.

More subterranean otherworldliness.

The entrance to our hostel must be left unmarked, because it is in a historic building.

Lord knows how long the mob from our hostel kept partying, or where they ended up.  I detached and, after talking to the interesting Hungarian man for quite a while, wandered off to find some falafel and shoot random pictures.  I'm a bit long in the tooth for that all-night whooping-and-hollering business.  I'd rather sit on a park bench in the dark and think my thoughts.   But it was a great night.  When I sacked out, I was good and beat.

The next morning we headed down to Heroes' Square, a huge plaza peopled with giant statues of warriors, soldiers, statesmen, and other historical Hungarian bad-asses. It was created at the end of the 19th century to commemorate the 1000th anniversary of the Magyar conquest of Hungary in 895.  That's right, I said Eight. Ninety. FIVE.

Andrássy Avenue was impressive enough in itself.  I was pretty much stunned, just walking along, staring dumbfoundedly at the ancient buildings, the people, the old trees… The place has gravitas.  It's not what you would call a cheerful boulevard, but it has an intense feeling of history, of life having been lived there in different ages, of throngs who have come and gone…

Hungarian weiner dog plaque for the win.

As always, I gnashed my teeth at the social conventions that make it impossible to just sit and take pictures of everyone who walks by.  No, I wouldn't like someone doing that to me, either, but still, I found the people so fascinating.  I need a spycam.

I would love to live in this little room, with a window facing onto Andrassy Avenue. I would get myself an old manual typewriter and a victrola. You would never hear from me again.

Heroes' Square.

I was taken with this guard booth outside an impressive estate on Andrassy.  Perhaps it was once an embassy, or the residence of someone powerful. Imagine some guy spending his whole life in there, day after day, year after year. He goes home at night to his plate of sausage and his wife and his daughter. No-one asks, “What did you do today, daddy?” And it was probably a damn good job to have, back in the day.

In the evening, I headed out alone to find some "ruin bars."  These are old manufacturing facilities, warehouses, etc., that have been converted into low-budget watering holes for young people and timeless bohos like me.

Tell me you don't imagine a zombie arm reaching out of this window to claw at your ankle as you pass by.

Can you tell this is a public drinking house?  It is.

Jan from Slovakia.

I found one. There weren't many people there. I sat down with my notebook and a beer and wrote for an hour or so.  Then I felt like playing the beat-up old piano that was sitting there.  A guy named Jan came along and played a bit, too.  We struck up a conversation and then played the piano together.  Some people stood around and listened.  I sang J'ai Faim, Toujours and then we played Minnie the Moocher.  People sang along.

The crowd thinned. I bought Jan a beer and we sat down to talk.  He was down on his luck.    He's traveled around the world, but he is homeless now. He has been a chiropractor, an acupuncturist, and a musician on cruise ships.  He tried to explain to me why it was that he was stranded in Budapest, when he was supposed to be on a ship to Brazil, where he had some kind of business venture waiting, something to do with natural healing… or something… but I never did quite understand his predicament.  It's not often that I talk to someone who makes me feel like I lead a conventional, settled life, but Jan made me feel like I’ve been playing it safe. Not that I’d want to be in his shoes. He’s casting about for options with a look of desperation. His interest in me may have begun to wane when he realized how poor I am.  After a while, we parted company.  I went to see if I could find another place.

I didn't find another bar I felt like going into, but I enjoyed just wandering around, looking at the rain slicked streets in the city of night.

A street lamp outside one of the grand old hotels.

View from the balcony of our hostel the next morning.

The next morning, the skies were fairly clear and it was far less chilly than I would expected of a Hungarian winter.  I got to explore the city in the sunlight for a change.  I didn't take my camera.   I think it's good not to snap pictures sometimes.

Later, we headed back to the train station, to buy our tickets to L'viv.  Better to do it a bit in advance, so as not to worry about it while we enjoyed our last day in the city.

They don't make it real easy to buy tickets.  The dead hand of the old Soviet bureaucracy still casts a shadow over the Hungarian railway services. You can feel it in the great weariness of the most minor official.

"Do you know how much a ticket to L'viv  is?" Rachel asked at the customer service office.

"I have no idea," said the agent, with a heavy sigh. "This is not the ticketing office."

THIS is the ticketing office. Note the bulletproof glass.

The ticket office is across the station.  It is an awkward, cramped, L-shape. The clerks are safely ensconced behind what appears to be thick, protective glass. There is tape on the floor, marking off the line beyond which the citizen—excuse me, the customer—must not transgress until called upon. People are standing about, but not in lines.

There are numbers flashing in red on an LED display on the wall. I see people clutching little squares of paper. I find a computer screen with six buttons. Next to each button is somethg in Magyar. I press the last one and receive a ticket with the word closed printed on it. I try a different button and get the number 110. The numbers that have been coming up on the wall are in the upper 300s, but our number pops right up, so we proceed forthwith to window number 3, where we are informed once again that the only service dispensed at this location is information, and that we should go back to the video terminal and press the third button in order to receive a number which will entitle the bearer to approach a window from which a ticket can be bought. Following these instructions, I receive ticket number 405. The LED screen is currently flashing 393.

While waiting for our number to come up, there occurs a scene. A professorial-looking gent in tweeds raises his voice to an alarming level, to such a degree that he incurs a large bubble of space around him, even in this crowded room. He is yelling and making broad gestures at the clerks, who are safe behind the glass. The manager, quite a young fellow, is called. Despite the safety barrier, he seems fearful and keeps his distance. The well-groomed and respectable gentleman is in no way placated and yells even more loudly. There is something calculated in the way he is escalating the situation. It is as though experience has taught him that nothing else will have any effect on these implacable functionaries.

Security appears, a bunch of beefy dudes in black shirts. Cold eyes of those accustomed to sizing up opponents. The man moderates his tone, thank god, but I can see that his explanations will be for naught; security does not exist to resolve procedural misunderstandings. What they do is address disruptive behavior, and they do this with the threat of violence.  There are occasions when even I am not stupid enough to snap photographs.

For a while, their faces remain flat while he explains his grievance, but then, failing to receive any redress, he begins to become excitable again.  The alpha railway dog escalates alongside him, with an air of calculation that gives me the chills.  He first matches, then overmatches his tone, stepping up nose-to-nose,  and edging him out the door, in a classic show of schoolyard dominance. I see the old fellow stomping off, cursing. He is rational enough to know that all he is going to get out of these guys is a stomping, but not cool-headed enough to resist baiting them as he disappears from view.  He’s lucky these guys are at work.  I doubt he’d get away with his parting shots out on the street.

And so the scene ends. Everyone is relieved. The tension evaporates.

And yet, one security guard remains. The turbulence is over, but. like a fever, the spirit of disobedience may spread. An Official Presence will be there to still the waters.  That would be a slightly reformed soccer hooligan, standing by the wall, cracking his knuckles, looking bored at the lack of action.

Later, I took a tram ride to the non-tourist areas of the city.  I love to just ride the trams and see the ordinary people going about their lives.

Around the corner from our hostel, I discovered an art-house cinema.  It looked like they showed mostly old Hungarian films.  Heaven!  I love old black and white European movies.

I saw the 18.00 movie.

This guy was one of a total of five people who went to the movie I saw.

The movie was entirely in Magyar, but I still got the gist of it. It was a backstage intrigue story. The male lead became obsessed with the female lead because she was stealing his thunder and he started coming undone psychologically and dressing in drag. In the end they turned out to be in cahoots to screw the money guys… not to mention the AMAZING communist propaganda shorts that opened the showing.

More night wanderings.

Threatening Hungarian honey bears.

Walking to the train station.

I don’t recall what I did after the movie… probably got a sandwich. As I recall, we were set to leave rather early the next morning for L’viv, Ukraine.

I loved Budapest.  I could happily live there if conditions were a little different, but I don't think the market for English teaching is good, and I'm quite sure I would never master Magyar.  There are also some worrying larger political trends in the country as a whole.  It's a troubled place.  But I will be back, I'm sure.  It captured my imagination.  I want to see more of it.

Twin Pigs, Twin Castles

June 25, 2013


Weekend before last, I went with my fellow English teachers to Twin Pigs, the Wild West theme park here in Żory. I have to say, on the whole, they get it about right. It’s not much different from going to a similar tourist trap in America.

There was a gunfight on Main Street… just like when I was a kid! My dad always killed the bad guy.

The announcer had great fun saying the word Mexicano! When he finally made his appearance, he was being dragged behind a horse. They strung him up for hanging, but then his friends rescued him… I think. it was all kind of far away. One very funny thing was when the gunfighters were getting ready to have a showdown; the undertaker measured one behind his back.

Hanging with Young Danger from Liverpool. He done gone on, back to the land of the Engles.

Erin, Danger & Helen… American cowboys from England teaching English to Polish people.

There was some kind of rodeo. I sat in the shade until it was over. I HATE rodeo.

The girls are out in their summer dresses.

There’s an electronic shooting gallery, where you sit on rocking horses and fire at a big screen. Danger got the highest score in the house. CORRECTION: That would be Erin who got the high score. Never draw down on The Matriarch.

Let’s see, Confederate flag… check. US flag… check. Star of David… check.

There was something a bit clown- creepy about this guy. They should have put boots on the bottom of his stilts maybe… I don’t know. Come to think of it, there were no rodeo clowns. Can’t say it was an omission that broke my heart.

The country band was more than capable. I’ve heard worse at rodeos and fairs.

A couple of things I didn’t get pictures of… there was some western style dancing… all wrong. The cowboys had way too much Solid Gold Dancers-type hip action going on. Real country dancing is pretty stiff in the trunk. They looked more like Las Vegas Chippendale cowboys to me. But then, I don’t watch Country Music Television… maybe that’s changing.

The start of my heroic and glorious 3-second career as a rodeo rider.

There was a mechanical bull. None of us lasted more than 5 seconds, just sort of ineffectually flumpfing off onto the soft safety surface. English teachers are not generally an athletic lot.

I think the most fun I had was speaking like an actual Texan (which I am) to the Polish park employees in their western get-ups.

“Howdy, ma’am.”

Blank stare.

“How y’all situated?”

Crickets chirping.

“Me, I’m fixin’ to paint the town!”

Paint drying.

“Well… reckon I’ll mosey on. Right nice jawin’ with ya.”

As an English teacher I understand that there is no way on earth that a non-native speaker could get a handle on these highly idiomatic expressions, ‘less you allow as how they spent all their growin’ up years watching Bonanza on the one-eyed babysitter.  I knew I was amusing myself at their expense, but I don’t think I did any more damage than to make myself look like an idiot, which is hardly an act of prevarication.

So, all in all, I have to say it was… authentically fake? Not the strangest experience I’ve had in Poland by a mile.

Walking back across town, it was in the upper 80s (F) and cloudless; nothing much by Texas standards, but still, fittingly, the first time I’ve sweated and sought shade in Poland.


The next morning, I was scheduled to meet my friend Leon at 8:00. Yeah, right… not going to happen, not after a night spent socializing with mostly English folk. I texted him, pushing it back to 10:00. We had planned to do some serious hiking in the mountains, but instead we went to see some castles and WWII battlements in the Czech Republic.

The chubby guy with the hangover, slumped by the tank? That’s me.

The WWII bunkers didn’t open until noon, so we headed on out to the castles.

Not castles.

Had to stop and get some pictures of the Czech forest. I loves me some forest.

The first castle we went to was Helfštýn. It overlooks the Moravian Gate, a pass between mountains that was militarily important.  It was originally founded by bandits, mere gangs of armed men who took what they could from anyone they could, by force of arms. Later it morphed into some sort of governmental thing… in other words, the basic theme of all history.

You can see where the stairs used to be in the tower. That’s about as far as my archaeology skills will take you.

The next scenic things we went to contemplate were both in the village of Štramberk. Trúba castle tower overlooks the town, but first we went to a cave called Šipka, which is on the hills facing it.

Looking across the town from the cave to the castle tower.

Leon gazing out from the turret.

The village of Štramberk.

They have these weird little ghost dolls all over the place. I Iooked it up on the web and it seems they had a contest, where school children created ghosts to hang about the old castle tower.  This guy’s name is… wait for it… Emo Klaun.  (He’s #6 on this chart.) Czechs are a little bit odd sometimes. In a good way.

Lastly, we visited a friend of Leon’s, a used-car dealer who does insane mountain climbing expeditions. He lives up the mountainside in an old house he renovated himself.

Naturally, all I took a picture of was this chicken. What can I say? I was getting hungry.

On the road home, we saw an old Polish Fiat 124. They’re not so common anymore. Leon knows a lot about cars.

And thus we have reached the end of my weekend. I only have one more left before I leave Żory. This weekend will be filled with parties and helping friends move.  I don’t have a whole lot of packing to do because I’ve already gotten rid of most of my junk and packed most of the rest to ship to Kazakhstan.

Oh yeah… I’m moving to Kazakhstan in September.

Happy Accidents In The Mountians

May 27, 2013

Here are some pictures… okay a lot of pictures, from my jaunt to the mountains, a couple weeks ago.

This will probably be my last big bicycle trip for a while, since my bike was stolen last week. It was my own fault; I left it chained to a lamp post on a major road for 5 days.  Stupid.  I’m not too busted up about it; it was a cheap old bike.  I’ll get a better one eventually. I do generally prefer walking for exercise anyway.

But back to my little adventure.  My first stop was the Rybnik train station, where, due to misreading the schedules, I had most of a day to kill.


Which turned out to be a happy accident, because I finally found myself in the diner during its limited and unpredictable operating hours.  It was everything I had hoped it would be, exactly the kind of thing I had hoped to find in Poland.  Shuffling old gents in raincoats and a stocky, be-aproned matron, serving greasy fries and instant coffee.

I will be back there, you may be sure.

“Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens.”

More fine Polish vegetarian cuisine.

The passageway to the platforms at the Rybnik train station.


I think I’ve posted enough pictures from trains, so I’ll spare you.  (For now.)  It’s only a little over an hour’s ride, anyway.  I got off the train, hoisted up my pack, looked at my handwritten directions, and hit the road.

I didn’t get off to a real super start.  Between backtracking, missing turns, and stopping for coffee and a look at the map, it took me well over an hour to reach the edge of town, only about 5 km from the train station.  It was pitch black and beginning to rain. I wasn’t sure I should try to cover the remaining 17 kilometers to the hostel, in the dark, through the mountains, on unknown roads.  Difficult bordering on dangerous.

As I was about to leave town, I passed a hotel.  Shoot, I thought, face reality.  I swung back around and went up to the reception desk.

Showing up soaked in sweat, dressed like a roadie for the Dead, obviously a zero-budget backpacker, does have one advantage; they don’t waste their breath trying to upsell you any luxury packages.  I got a room for about $55—far and away the most I have ever paid in my life—but still cheaper than any of the rates on the board.  They let me bring my bike into the security office.  I went upstairs, ready for a luxuriously hot shower and some fresh towels, which came through so smashingly they were almost worth the money.

View from my hotel in Bielsko-Biała. Doesn’t it look like a lovely day for a 17 km bike ride up two mountains?


The next morning it was pretty rainy, so I took my time slurping coffee and double checking my route on google maps.  (Generally accurate, though a bit scant on information in the village.)  During a pause in the precip, I loaded up and lit out to get some lunch.  I figured if I left town around noon, I would have more than enough time to get there by dark.  Turns out that was true, but just barely.

Pack that mule and hit the trail.

Imagine several hours of this.  Beautiful?  Yes.  Steep?  Even more so.

After a few hours, I made it over the hump of the first mountain. I figured I had done the most of it.


I descended into a village, where I stopped for a meal.  I then crossed a lake on a bridge and began to ascend yet another mountain.  The map showed that it was only about 4 km, but it was much steeper than the first mountain. I got a good ways up and it seemed like I had passed the level at which people had settled.  I rode back down a bit to the last area with houses, stopped and looked around. Nope.  The numbers were too low.  I got my notebook out of my pack, looked up the number, and called the hostel.

The woman who answered spoke little English, but she was able to tell me I had a ways to go, another 30 minutes to an hour of pushing my bicycle up the mountainside.  “Up, up, up!” she said, laughing.

Hostel Gora Zar/Góra Żar. It’s completely unmarked, except for the address, which wouldn’t have been visible in the dark the night before.  (Or any time it was dark, I guess.)
There you go… number 64.  And that’s how you know this is a hostel.

In a final laugh of fate, I had to climb these steep stairs to my room.

I got to the hostel around an hour before dark.  I had meant to get out and explore, but I was pretty tuckered out.  I laid around, read, checked my email, like that.

Looking out the window of my room… DOWN on clouds.

I got to bed pretty early.  I was the only guest.  It was wonderfully quiet.


The next morning I walked up the road toward the mountaintop.

A shrine to the virgin Mary in a Polish mountain village.

Wouldn’t mind if these were the steps to my house.

Towards the summit, I got off the road and hiked into the misty forest.

Around here, the going got rough; more like climbing than hiking.

Who’s a hippy in the woods?  Me.

I found this dirt road out of the forest because I heard some voices.

In the evening, the proprietress, Kamila, invited me into her quarters for a home-cooked meal.  It was absolutely fantastic.  I didn’t want to make a fuss about my vegan diet, so I ate what she served, which was roasted chicken, mashed potatoes, slaw, salad… I can’t remember what all.  It was amazing.

I talked quite a bit with Kamila and her teenage daughter Olga.  Her two-year-old was hilariously terrified of me and would not sit at the table while I was there. I’ve opted out of family life myself, but as a traveler, when people invite me into their homes, I do enjoy the warmth and comfort of domesticity.

The next day, she let me ride into town with her. I felt honored to put some groceries in the trunk.  That’s one hard-working Polish innkeeper.


Sunday morning, I set out at 9:15, which is quite an early start for me.  But it had taken me most of a day to get to the hostel, and I didn’t want to miss my train, which left at 4:47.

This is a school for hang-gliding.  It’s a couple hundred meters down the mountain below the hostel.

I’ve gotten to where I can mostly read stuff like this.

At the bottom of the mountain, I found a bus stop.  I checked the schedule and sure enough, there was one to town coming in a few minutes.  I unsaddled and waited.  There was an old man there, waiting, smoking a cigarette.  I asked him in my bad Polish if he thought I could take my bike on the bus.  He seemed at first to say no, but then just shrugged.  I waited.

When it came. I stepped up and asked the driver, reading from a slip of paper the difficult word przewozić the question, Can I transport my bicycle? He gestured around the interior of the bus theatrically and said, with an air of exasperation, “Gdzie?”  (“Where?”)

Thanks, buddy.  Not the greatest customer service I have ever received.  But I said thank you and got back on my bike.

Back to the mountain we go.

Looking across the lake, back toward the mountain village from whence I came.

The long, slow ascent begins.

Hey, it’s ulica Piękna! I know all about this place from my Pimsleur Polish mp3s. Plac Zamkovy must be nearby.


I was surprised to reach the summit at exactly noon. I guess the overall slope is much less steep going west.  The descent down the mountain into Bielsko-Biała took me a whole 8 minutes of high-speed coasting.



I made it to the train station easily and by 1:00, I had bought my ticket and chained my bike to a post, right by where I would board.  I had a few hours to wander around the city and drink a couple of beers.

Didn’t make it down to the square named after the Utopian language Esperanto.

Lody means ice cream.  Polish people really dig ice cream.

I sat in a pub called The Dog’s Bollocks for an hour, drank two beers and wrote in my journal, looking out the window on the square..



Kawa czarna = black coffee.  I had exact change, but the machine wouldn’t take my smaller coins.  It also wouldn’t give me back my money.

Sorry, can’t get through a travel post without a couple of train pictures.

Back home.  The most people I have ever seen at the Żory train station were there on this Sunday afternoon, meeting returnees from Bielsko-Biała.

I’d like to go back.  My neighbor says she’d like to go.  I want to give Kamila some more business.  I really hope her business strategy of hosting vacationers in the mountains allows her to live the life she wants to live, out there in the country.  And I’d like to climb some more in the woods.

Up, Up, Up!

May 3, 2013

I had to pay 179 złoty for a night in a real hotel in Bielsko-Biała, something I only do in extremis, but I’m really glad I didn’t try to get to Hostel Góra Żar  that first night.  There’s no way I would have found it.  Aside from being 22 km from the train station, it’s completely unmarked, except for the address, which wouldn’t have been visible in the dark.  I reached my mountaintop destination yesterday evening.

Yep, that’s right, it’s on top of a mountain, 1000 meters above where I started.  Maybe I should have read the description on the website.

Hostel newly opened on the mountain Zar in a stunning surrounding with scenic hiking routes, water and mountains.

(Emphasis mine.)  But no, I just did what I always do, which is book the cheapest hostel, (in this case the only hostel), in my target city, and then figure out how to get there later. Lesson learned: read everything and look at the map before booking the room.

Oh, and did I mention there was another mountain in between Bielsko-Biała and the little village of Międzybrodzie Żywieckie, which I could see right now in the valley far below me, if there weren’t clouds in the way.  That’s two mountains I had to ascend on my beat-up old bicycle, with a pack weighing 20 kg (44 kbs.)

And yet, as often happens, it was a happy accident.  Yesterday, I called to ask for directions.  It looked like I had reached the limits of civilization atop the mountain, but no, I still had a good ways to go.  “Up, up, up!” said the woman on the phone, laughing.

(Side note: It dawned on me with horror that this heavy pack is actually only 4/5 of the weight I used to carry in my body, before I started my diet in November 2011.  Yikes.  No wonder I can do 15 push-ups now and then I could do none.)

Can’t post any pictures yet because I forgot the cord for my camera.  But take my word for it, arduous though it was, my bicycle trek across the mountainous forest was worth it for the stunning views.  Even in the stop-and-start rain.  (For once, I thought to pack my poncho and lots of plastic bags. I do sometimes learn, eventually. With spaced reptition and very clear reinforcement.)

It’s a holiday today, Constitution Day, so everything is closed.  I’m pretty tired and sore, but it’s a good kind of tired.  I’ll go hike in the woods a bit later if the rain lets up.  Right now I’m going to take a little nap.  This evening, I’ll be having dinner with the proprietress, a charming woman with both a teenage daughter and a two year-old.

All I can hear right now is the whirring of my laptop and the birds chirping in the mountaintop mist.  Life is good.

Evening Update

I hiked to the top of the mountain.  It was awesome.  It took me back to being a kid, clambering around the mountains in west Texas and southern New Mexico, but what it really reminds me of here is the Smokies, which I visited once when I was quite young and never forgot.

Then my hostess, going way above and beyond, invited me into her quarters for a fantastic home-cooked meal with her and her two daughters.  She offered to pick me up tomorrow evening if I get back to the village late from my jaunt into town.  (On the bus, not by bicycle!)

Poland, you are AWESOME.