Friday, June 29, 2007

Happy Canada Day and the simple joys of a bed

I'm in Madrid, heading out to Vaughan Town on July 1 so I'll have to teach the Spaniards about Canada Day.

Last night I slept in a bed for the first time in two days. In those days, I slept stretched out on train seats on a trip from Romania to Hungary, then beside a pool at the Turkish baths in Budapest, then on the floor of the Budapest airport the next night, and stretched out on some seats in the Berlin airport yesterday. Having a pillow other than my handbag was a real treat, as was a mattress.

I did take a picture of the public bath I visited in Budapest this time round, so here it is.

I like Hungarian statue style for some reason I can't pinpoint. I also like the fact that they put up statues of historical figures all over the place and are quite proud of their history, even though no one else really knows about it. I think we should try that more in Canada - instead of the Heritage Dept. spending money on free flags or whatever it is they do, they could put up a few statues. Here's some heroes of Hungarian history that I don't know anything about.
At Budapest, we boarded a bus that drove us all of 150 ft to our plane. I think this must have been due to safety regulations that didn't allow for us to cross the airport road that the luggage cars and fuel trucks drove on. At Berlin, and other airports I've been to, they provided a crossing guard. Seems that's more expediant than putting us all on buses for a 10 second journey.

Travelling the last couple of days, I have become aware that I'm a good size for travelling. I wouldn't want to be any taller or bigger and try to fly budget airlines. I flew Easy Jet this time round, and my knees were a mere few inches from the seat in front of me (the seats don't recline on those flights because if they did, you'd be lying on the person behind you). On trains, I'm just the right length to stretch out on compartment benches, and ditto for making a bed out of two airport chairs and a coffee table. I'm big enough to carry my luggage, but small enough to squeeze into where I need to. 5 foot 5 inches works well.

Oh, beware the airline MyAir. Two French girls I hung out with in Sighsoara discovered, by a chance checking of e-mail, that their flight had been moved to two days later and that there was no other flights to allow them to get back home when they needed to. We spent some time searching on the internet and managed to find them a flight from another city on another airline, but it was more expensive then the flight they had originally booked. And if they hadn't checked their e-mail, they would have shown up at the airport to be told that they didn't fly that day.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007


Not sure if I posted a general outline of where I'm going over the next while, so I'll do it just in case.

June 28 I'm flying to Madrid (via Berlin) to do another Vaughan Town from July 1-6.

I'm flying to an airport in the vacinity of London after the Vaughan Town, going to spend some time visiting London (ouch! says my wallet) and some other places in England (thinking Hadrian's Wall as one stop) as I make my way north to Edinburgh.

Hope to visit some people in Edinburgh for a few days and then head to Isle of Skye for two weeks for a Scottish Gaelic course (go ahead and laugh, I don't care) that starts on July 30.

After that, I will hopefully be on track to getting a job and will rejoin the world of the earning.

Don't you wish your girlfriend is hot like me?

I was thinking that while I was in Eastern Europe I might do some clothes replacement shopping, as new clothes would be slightly cheaper here. They are, but I didn't count on the clothing style being quite so different.

In the east, branded clothing is even more popular than in the UK (where it is more popular than in Canada). So all those shops I avoided, leaving me with the cheap shops that I like to frequent. The clothes in the cheap shops in the east tend to involve lots of glitter and slogans in English on the tops, like this post title (complete with grammar mistake) or something like "Your boyfriend bought me this" or just simple stuff like "superstar". Not really my cup of tea.

I suppose I could blame the clothing choice on the ignorance of English on the part of the buyers, but then I've seen shops in Glasgow selling shirts that read things like "porn star" or "I'm not drunk enough for you to look good yet" and the like.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Home of the Impalers!

I'm in Sighsoara, Romania for a couple of days until I head to Budapest to catch a flight. Sighsoara is the birthplace of Vlad Tepes, also known as Vlad the Impaler, the model for Count Dracula. If the local high school hasn't named their school team the Impalers, then they're missing out on a cool name. Choosing an appropriate mascot that's not too controversial but not stupid looking might be difficult though - look what happened with the Rural Raiders (here it looks sort of cool. On the actual mascot, in the suit, nope, but can't find a photo).

It was a bit of a relief to get back to Romania because here at least I know the alphabet if I don't know the language. Then, spending only a few minutes in the Bucharest train station could kill that relief. Carrying a backpack just makes me a target for people wanting money. There was a guy there sporting a badly photocopied ID badge offering information then wanting payment. Last week when I was there, a guy dressed in imitation of a railway employee pointed out the correct train car to me and some other travellers, then grabbed the beer can of one fellow and took a swig as payment. He later came into our compartment asking for tickets and changing that to a demand for money.

The gypsy kids are also annoying. I think they pick me out as foreign just be my looks and they have followed me along the street, demanding money I presume (they speak Romanian to me, which makes little sense if they know me to be foreign). One girl approached me when I was sitting on a bench, wanting me to buy a bunch of weedy flowers and all my repeated "no's" could not dissuade her. She laid the bundle down on my bag and I gave it back to her. She set the flowers aside and started tapping me on the shoulder. I swatted her hand away each time (when people start touching me, I feel that they've really crossed a line) and she eventually gave up.

The Carpathian mountains are for the most part large rolling hills, but there are several rocky peaks of a light grey colour. The land between the mountains is a large plain, flat as can be.

The roof tiles here are red, as they have been in small towns in Portugal, Spain, southern France, northern Italy, Hungary, and Bulgaria. Since most of these countries do not have red soil, I wonder where they get the tiles from? The houses in all these countries look quite similar despite the vast distances between say Portugal and here.

Town clock tower - the window to the right of the clock shows statues for each day of the week, generally the god for whom the weekday is named.

Main commercial street as viewed from the tower.

Just a building that is sort of representative of the town's style.

Feeling guilty for being rich

Travelling from Varna to Russe (on the Bulgarian border with Romania) I met some high school students who wanted to use me for English practice so I sat with them. They questioned me about Canada and my visit to their country, and one of their questions was whether I thought Bulgaria was poor. I told them that on the surface the country doesn't seem poor (except for the trains that I'll get to in a bit) but that I know it must be because I can buy things so cheaply.

The students asked me how much I was spending on my trip and when I told them about 2500 Leva (1250 Euro) they were astonished, saying that is about half an average annual salary. They were further amazed because I had said that my job didn't pay extremely well and yet I had saved that money in a matter of months.

That being said, all these kids were carrying camera phones and wearing branded clothing. Those kind of items aren't that much cheaper in Bulgaria, so either they're not doing too poorly themselves or they spend absolutely all their money. Still, I felt a little guilty for having so much money.

I mentioned the trains being a sign of the country's poverty. Firstly, train travel is cheap compared to other countries (I paid 4.5 Euro to travel over 200 km) and bus travel is even cheaper. But the trains in Bulgaria are the oldest and dirtiest ones I've been on. I could smell the toilet before I even got on one train, so I sat as far away from it as possible and fortunately I didn't have to use it. The seats are dingy and small - eight seats where there'd be six elsewhere in Europe. Trains still have compartments, not the open seating that you find in the west. In Romania and Hungary I've also been on grubby old trains, but they also have some new ones for the intercity runs.

Buses can be just as grubby and are a rough ride by times. Seat upholstery is often torn open. One bus I took in Bulgaria had what I believe was the transmission protruding from the floor and covered by a blanket. That bus' side doors would not close but that provided needed ventilation.

Other than the transport, I found nothing else problematic in Bulgaria really. The locals were all friendly (excluding train station employees who don't seem to be nice in any country in the world) - when walking through the village I stayed in, little kids would shout greetings in English and older people would smile. One woman at a restaurant washroom, upon learning that I was from Canada, very enthusiastically tried to get across some point about Canada being number one and Bulgaria being number four (in sports or something? I still don't know).

It seems that a lot of older Bulgarian men get to sit around and drink all day while their wives are out working. All the menial jobs, except hard labour, are done by women, and the really old women still try to make some money by selling handicrafts.

There are huge beetles in Varna. One of them could take on a mouse.

Death notices are posted on sheets of paper tacked on to posts and trees, bearing a picture of the deceased. I couldn't make out anything more than to gather that these people were dead (Cyrillic makes things tricky), so they could be full obituaries for all I know.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Pretending to be rich

I'm leaving Varna today, heading back Romania way as I make my way back to Budapest where I have a flight in a few days.

Varna's been fun - the hostel I've stayed at is one of the best I've ever patronized, the city is neat and the beaches are nice.

Beaches here are... organized we'll say, compared to the ones back home. There's bars and restaurants on the beachfront and they put out umbrellas and lounge chairs which they will charge you for using. But they will also serve you on the beach, of course. It's very different then the canteens you get at places like Cavendish beach.
You can be charged for a lot of things here. Going to the washroom - even if you're in a restaurant, there's often a little old lady ready to collect your 30 Stotinki (the Bulgarian cent, basically) for the privilege of using the facitilies. In the city's cathedral, I was admitted free but told that if I wanted to take photos I'd have to pay 5 Leva. Then there's the beach stuff as mentioned - an umbrella will run you 3 Leva I believe. That's under two bucks, but if you add up all the little bits it's not so cheap any more.

I hung out with some folks at one of the beachfront cocktail bars yesterday. It's expensive by Bulgarian standards but still cheap to any of the tourists. A swanky kind of place that none of us could afford in our own countries. The clientele, besides tourists, consisted of many bulky men with beer bellies and numerous tattoos, and their slim, attractive wives - the kind that only money can buy, I guess. The lounge had two swimming pools with pillows all around, which you had to pay to use, and then loads of white couches with pillows. So for a few hours I got to pretend to be a rich girl, which was alright.
Since everything is so cheap over here, there's loads of foreigners, mostly from the UK but now others from Germany and other European countries, who are buying property over here. Small houses needing work are going for 7,000 Euro even, and it seems that decent ones are in the 30,000 range going upward of course (from what I gathered from the displays of all the real estate agents in the city).

The building style is a little different over here as well - here's an example and then the cathedral exterior.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

The lace-curtained bus

The hostel where I'm staying is in a small village, so the hostel will bus you into town every day or you can take the local bus. There's one bus that runs back and forth on the line, and it's quite the old machine. For starters, the bus driver doesn't collect your fare, there's a woman who rides along on the bus all day who comes by to collect your money and issue you a ticket once you sit down.

The bus has lace curtains hanging in the front to block the sun, as well as a lace doiley over the console at the front. The suspension isn't too hot, so it's a bumpy, squeaky ride. There's no air conditioning, so we drove to town with the front door open to get an extra breeze. The villagers transport an odd assortment of things with them. One older man had some carrots and herbs wrapped up in newspaper and a bucket of meat.

The twenty minute trip to the city costs about 55 cents (27 p).

Bulgarian restaurants are pretty laid back, which I'm told is typical of Bulgarians in general. In the restaurant sense, your food will get to you when it gets to you. Dishes don't all come out to everyone at once, they come when they're ready. So sometimes the main course comes out before the salads. It can be a little annoying when you're absolutely famished and every one at the table has gotten their food except you, but otherwise it's not really a problem.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Harpoon fishing

This photo is someone else's; I'm the brilliant white person in the middle who appears to either be doing some calisthenics or handwashing some clothes in the sea. The Black Sea isn't black at all as you can see from here.
I went to the beach with a bunch of people from the hostel today (about 11 of us) and we had two spear guns and sets of snorkeling equipment between us. So a bunch of us tried harpoon fishing - snorkeling amongst the rocks and hunting out little fish that are called gobi, I believe - just fat little ugly brown fish. I love snorkeling, although I've sort of forgotten that I do. I did it once 6 years ago and haven't since, an error I hope to correct in the future.

I didn't manage to catch any fish, although one fellow caught 8 which is the hostel record. I enjoyed the snorkeling more than anything, although the hunt of the fish was fun as well.

Arrived in Bulgaria

I'm in Bulgaria now - staying at a great hostel in a village outside of Varna, on the Black Sea coast. I wanted to make it to the Black Sea, but even Romanians were recommending that I bypass the coast in their country for another, so here I am. Getting here involved an overnight train that made lengthy stops at the border on each side, and then I had a long wait in a town called Russe on the border (from 1 am to 6 am). I spent it wandering around town with a Kiwi guy and we were invited by two Bulgarian fellows, one of whom spoke a little English, to play pool.

If I said that Hungary and Romania were cheap before, well Bulgaria beats them still. I had a decent, filling meal last night that cost me 3 Euro (4 bucks). I can hardly buy food from the grocery store and cook something for less than that, at least not without eating the same thing for days on end. So I'm living like a king here.

The local gas stations have specials on - get a 500ml can of Becks beer and a bag of Lays chips for something like a Euro. Quite different than Canada's Coke and chips combos.

They sell beer here in two litre plastic bottles, which I've never seen before but maybe I didn't look, practically everywhere (the above mentioned gas stations, the train stations). Around Europe, alcohol is much more available than in Canada (especially PEI where it's all government controlled), but Eastern Europe has it available more than anywhere I've been.

Toilets here lack a bowl, so are basically a hole in the ground. Those where there is a bowl you can't flush toilet paper (I guess the plumbing can't handle it) so there's a bin next to the toilet to dispose of the paper in. And you know what: here's a picture (a friend took this).

Friday, June 15, 2007

Change in mints

I'm heading off to Bulgaria hopefully today, on an overnight train from Bucharest. There may or may not be a direct train depending on who you talk to - I've met backpackers who have taken this train, but the train station people in Brasov insist that it's not possible to take it. I'll see when I get to Bucharest.

I'm going to Varna, on the Black Sea coast. I wanted to go to the Black Sea, and was planning to do so in Romania, but travellers and Romanians have been recommending to me that I go to the coast in another country than Romanian as it's nicer (less built up, better accomodation, etc.). I've gotten a recommendation on a really good hostel so I'm headed there.

I've been in Brasov 8 nights now, and honestly I could just keep staying here. The hostel I'm at is great. It feels like a home and there's great people around. I've met lots of other travellers and local young people. It's been interesting hearing the perspective of Romanian people around my age on their country and it's future and past.

I have never felt so popular as when sitting in a bar the other night with some fellow travellers and some Romanians we've met. All the locals just seem to love everyone. People who could hardly speak English sat down and tried to talk to me, and if they couldn't say much at all they'd still managed to say "I like you" at some point. People were affectionately patting me on the head as they went by. All this and many couldn't understand a word that I said (maybe that helps in liking me!).

The currency here is the leu (lei plural), and $1CAD=2.2 lei, and 1pound=4.7 lei. Now, that's not as bad as Hungary where you're getting into the hundreds of forints before you equal the dollar, but even so they don't really like to divide the lei up here, perhaps because it's not really worth so much divided up (a Coke will cost you about 2 lei). So the bani, of which there are 100 to a leu, doesn't get used much in actuality. If your total comes to 3.20 lei, shopkeepers will often just take 3 lei from you if you don't have 20 bani because they don't have the coins to make change with (or they don't want to bother, perhaps). If the total comes to 3.80 lei and you give them 4 lei, you will generally be given "change" in the form of a mint or a toffee or something like that. An odd little system - change in mints.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Brasov, Romania

I arrived in Brasov from Budapest and I'm still here. Was planning to spend about 4-5 days here but fatigue and the flu has kept me in one spot a little longer. I'm feeling better today so tomorrow I will probably head to the Black Sea coast.

If I thought that I had time-travelled in Budapest, the effect has been even greater in Romania. Brasov is a modern town but in the villages nearby people still use horses on their farms. Very small tractors (like a lawn tractor with a cab) seem to be used for the rougher work and then horse-and-cart is used for tasks like gathering up piles of weeds or transporting things. Older people wear "traditional" clothing - I spied several middle-aged women hoeing weeds in a field with their skirts hiked up over their knees.

There's a lot more old cars of the like that I saw in Hungary. Lots of Trabants, plus a Romanian make, the Dacia.

I was out to Bran Castle, the one that Bram Stoker based his Dracula castle on. It's nothing like how I would have pictured Dracula's castle, but it had a secret staircase and seats built into all the windows so I liked it for those features alone. It was filled with Romanian schoolchildren and other tourists so that was a bit annoying.

I think I have a short right leg or something. A lot of my photos are coming out slanty when I don't intend it. So here's Bran Castle on a slant.

You know you have a lot of rooms when you have a "Waiting Room For the Music Room" (hey, you can see the top of my head in that sign!)

Houses in the hills as seen from the castle.

I took a walk up some of the hills around Brasov - there's a Hollywood-like sign of the town name that I walked up to with some French girls. I fell off the trail twice, proving that I can't (yet) speak French and walk properly at the same time. My hostel was down a street to the left of the square that you may be able to see in the centre of the picture by the church steeple in the picture below.
The hostel staff here are Romanian and I've hung out with them plus their in-town friends. It's astonishing to me to see someone who can hardly speak English sing along perfectly to song-after-song of English-language pop music.

Finally, here's a close-up of a standard roof with the red-brown tiles.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Final Hungarian thoughts

I'm out of Budapest now, having taken a train to Romania. More on that in another post.

I'm not sure what it is that I like about Budapest, but I would say that I like it. It has many things that I dislike in a city. It's often dirty, there's graffiti everywhere (I'm Canadian, I expect my cities to be clean). It's poor - I've seen more people sleeping on the streets in Budapest than anywhere else - on main streets as well. So I can't explain even to myself what I like about it. It would be like trying to explain why I like chocolate or milk.

Hungarian is a very tricky language. I was told that they have "around" 46 letters, because double consonants and double-double consonants are considered letters. So I only managed to learn the barest number of words. I try to learn "hello", "goodbye", "please", "thank-you", and "sorry/excuse me" in the language of a country I visit, as I figure they're essentials. In Hungarian I learned only "please" - kerem (spelling not correct) - and "thank-you" - kozonom - and that was only after having a Hungarian teach me how to pronounce them. I figured out a few other words that were less useful from signs: sugar is "cukor", sale seems to be something like "akcio", and then there was "szex" on signs with silhouettes of women near the train station, so I'm sure you can figure out what that means.

I must say that, despite the bother they may have caused many people at the time, I'm glad the Romans spread themselves so far over Europe. Because it means that, even in difficult languages like Hungarian, there are words that I can figure out. "Muzeum" - I can figure that out. Or "politizik", or however it was spelled - I can tell that's politics. Those Latin-based words have been my friends in many languages. "Possible reservation train..." and then city name can get you pretty far in any country so long as you pronounce the words with an accent that is similar to the locals.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Please keep your arms and legs outside the vehicle while it is in motion (Budapest)

Signs on Hungarian train windows (sorry for the bad picture but circumstances were difficult).So, my best interpretation is: DO lean out the window, and DO throw objects, including bottles, out of the windows. I'm ashamed to admit that I didn't obey the signs, but the fat school children in my train car certainly did.

Did I take a train or a time machine to get to Hungary?
OK, to be fair, I'd estimate that only 1/5 to 1/4 of cars on the road here look like that. Everything else is quite modern - if you judge by the number of McDonalds and Burger Kings (and why not?) then this is the most modern city I have ever visited. That being said, the hot water in my hostel is produced by gas fires burning in boxes above the faucets. It produces wicked hot water. Since I'm accustomed to hostels where you really have to crank up the hot water, I nearly scalded myself when I first took a shower.

The above picture sums up much of the buildings in Budapest. Splendid but neglected. These doors are typical of entry ways to apartment buildings here, but as you can see the wood's in need of some treatment and there's graffiti. Hungarians, like the Portuguese, have a lot to say through spray paint (at least those aren't bubble letters). Even in the downtown, on pretty fancy shopping streets, you see graffiti.

The building that my hostel is in has a fancy wrought iron railing on the stair case that has gotten rusty and someone has attached an old can to it for use as an ashtray. The wallpaper which was once cream with a gold leaf pattern is water damaged and stained, as are the walls. There's stained glass windows from which the paint is flaking and panels are broken away. This city was very rich once, but they just can't keep it up like they used to.

Turkish baths are popular in Hungary, and they seem to have a lot of natural thermal springs so that works well. I went to the Szechenyi Baths one day, the largest one in Budapest. I didn't have my camera with me, so see the link for a photo. It was beautiful and definitely relaxing. In the outdoor pools, one is cooler, around 25-27 degrees Celcius, and the hot pool is 38 degrees Celcius and stays that warm even in winter. I spoke to an elderly Hungarian man who goes to the baths of senior discount days about 3 times a week year round and plays chess with his buddies (they hadn't shown up that day so he was bored and talking to me). He credits the minerals in the baths waters to his good health.

I liked this lion sculpture, and later read that when they first appeared on a bridge crossing the Danube (there are four lion sculptures), the sculptor was ridiculed because you can't see their tongues (they're in the backs of their mouths). He was so traumatized that he lept to his death from the bridge. Poor guy. I like his lions.

I went to the Castle district of Buda with two American girls, Meredith and Ellen, one night. It was magical with everything lit up, only a handful of people wandering about, and the air completely calm.

The bridge with the lions (chain bridge):

Just liked the way this looked - statue near the palace.
I went out to Statue Park, where the government placed all the old Soviet monuments from Budapest after the fall of the communist government. My favourite, that I couldn't get a picture of owing to it's size and orientation (on the ground), showed Communist soldiers shaking hands with the people, and one soldier holding a small child!

I went out to the town of Eger, north of Budapest, for the day. I strolled around the town, went to the baths for the hottest part of the day, and attempted to go out to see the vineyards but was thwarted by a flash rain and hail storm. This is part of the basilica; I took this because of the deep yellow colour that is used frequently in the town and that I really like (my bedroom walls in PEI are this colour).The square where everyone seems to bring their toddler so that he/she can ride around on his/her push trike. Eger Castle is in the background; it's famous for holding back the Turks I believe.

Friends don't let friends let their post offices become banks

If Canada Post ever proposes to offer banking services, fight it if you can. A lot of post offices in Europe (Portugal, France, Spain, Hungary) act as banks as well as post offices, and it really slows buying a stamp down. Even the UK's Royal Mail offers insurance and accepts tax payments and other transactions that involve people spending a lot of time with postal workers.

I thought it was bad enough when Canada Post started selling teddy bears and Royal Mint Harry Potter coins. At least you can still move through the line-up at a decent pace.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Passport stamps and shady dealings

As I mentioned, I'm now in Budapest. To get here, I first travelled from France into Italy, Milan to be exact. There I inquired at the ticket office about how to get to Budapest as soon as possible. The ticket agent spoke French so things wet smoothly. I showed her my rail pass, and she made me a required reservation on an overnight train from Venice to Budapest, 2nd class seating, and she told me the time for the next train to Venice, for which I didn't need a reservation.

So I was on my train from Venice to Budapest, which they could call the "ticket-and-passport inspection" special. Honestly, after the first hour it seemed that my ticket was inspected every 20 minutes. I kept falling in and out of consciousness - I was tired from travelling plus I was in the middle of a head cold - and being awoken by seemingly a different ticket inspector each time.

Then we crossed the border into Slovenia. Here I should mention that my rail pass is not valid in that country, and that I also had no idea the train was taking that route. I was under the impression that we were travelling via Austria, and the woman at the train station had not mentioned to me that I would be travelling where my pass is not valid.

I was made aware of the problem by the Slovenian ticket inspector. He informed me that we would be travelling through Slovenia and Croatia, both countries where my pass was not valid, so I would have to pay a supplement of 30.10 Euros.

As soon as he said the price, my heart sunk, so to speak, as I was pretty sure I did not have that much cash in Euros. Since Hungary doesn't have the Euro, I hadn't stocked up on cash. I had a little over 27 Euros, and some money in pounds sterling as well. I informed the ticket inspector of what I had. He didn't seem keen to accept pounds, and I was about ready to try hawking my 5 pound note for 3 Euros (a bargain, since it's worth about 7) since there was a lot of English-speaking people on the train and odds were some of them were from the UK. Then the girl next to me piped up with "How much do you need?" She gave me 3 Euros, proving to me once again that in general people in the world are kind and helpful. I got a receipt from the ticket inspector, gave the girl next to me a couple of chocolate bars that I had as an attempt at repayment, and started snoozing again.

Then we crossed into Croatia, which meant passport inspection. The Slovenian border police checked out all passports carefully, holding them up to the light and comparing photos with faces. I actually appreciated having that done, because often police just look at the cover of my passport and toss it back to me, and I think what's the point of having all the anti-fraud measures on my passport when no one looks at it? My passport got stamped with an exit stamp (although I never got an entry stamp to Slovenia) and I thought that was cool, because I rarely get stamps and my passport looks lonely with all the blank pages.

I was musing on how I thought it was a shame that with the EU, you don't get passport checks all the time, when the train then had to make another long stop while Croatian border guards checked our passports. By the time I had gone through two more passport checks (leaving Croatia, entering Hungary) I had grown to appreciate the ease of travel permitted by the EU. All those stamps take time, afterall.

Getting into Croatia meant a new Croation ticket inspector, who when I presented him with my rail pass, seat reservation, and supplement receipt, sternly informed me that I had to pay another supplement of 20 Euros because I had only paid for Slovenia, not Croatia. The Slovenian ticket inspector had kindly not informed me that I would be in trouble once I got across the border if I was out of money.

I told the ticket inspector my situation - that I had no Euros and only British pounds. He frowned and told me he would be back. So there I sat, waiting for him to return and wondering if I was going to be put off the train at some one-horse Croatian town at 3am. I had 75 pounds, and figured that 20 Euros would mean 15 pounds, and I even had the proper note for it. The question on my mind is whether pounds could be accepted - I figured it should be do-able, since the Euro isn't even the currency in Croatia anyway, and the pound is a good currency to get hold of. I was also wondering if I would have to "top-up" my supplement to encourage the ticket inspector to accept my UK notes, and considering how much it was worth to me not to end up off the train.

I tried staying awake waiting for the guy to come back, and he passed me a few times but didn't stop. I thought that perhaps he had just decided to leave me and eventually fell asleep, stretched out from my seat to the empty seats that were across from me (the helpful girl and the two other people seated with me and gotten off in Slovenia).

I was awaken, quite gently, by the ticket inspector tapping on my legs while seated across from me. He said to me "15 pounds, I write, 10 pounds, I not write." He was telling me that he'd write me up a receipt fo 15 pounds, like I thought, but that he'd cut me a deal if we left no paper trail and he could pocket the money. I was a bit reluctant to accept the "no write" deal at first because then I wouldn't have a receipt to prove I had paid to a different inspector.

Opening up my wallet, I said "15 pounds?" and the man, quickly and hopefully replied in a quiet voice "10 I no write." I guessed from the expression on his face that he wasn't going to let me get taken advantage of by this situation. He was doing me a favour if I'd do him one. Since every ticket inspector had been only concerned with their own country so far - Italian train station woman didn't care that I'd need to pay more outside of Italy, Slovenian guy didn't care that I1d need to pay more in Croatia - I figured I'd be alright.

I gave the man his 10 pounds and didn't see him again as we soon crossed into Hungary. It was my first dealing with a public official that was of a... I guess you wouldn't call it corrupt, so of a shady nature. I now think that it was sort of cool, as I felt a real part of that Eastern European state culture that we all hear about.

The Hungarian police not only checked our passports, but a guard moved along the corridor of all the carriages with a step ladder and opened up all the ceiling pannels to look inside. On top of my under-the-table dealings of the night, that extensive search just added to the feeling that I was in a different world now. And I won't ever attempt to smuggle something into Hungary. Those guards were stern and big. One had legs as long as me.

I have 3 new stamps in my passport, I'm 27 Euro plus 10 pounds poorer than I anticipated being, and I was very glad to get to a hostel bed this morning and take a nice nap there instead of sitting on a train platform in Növere'sz vyl, Croatia (I would like to visit Croatia someday, but under circumstances of my own choosing). Still, it's not a trip that I'll forget.

Congratulations France on getting ruled notepad paper

The lined notepad I bought in Bordeaux had the word "NOUVEAU" on the packaging. I wonder why it's taken so long?

Pedestrian crossing light update: the "green man" does not move (shucks!), but the ones near the train station look like they're marching. Vite! Cross the street!

Another perhaps quirky note: I am sure most of you have heard an announcement on a PA system at some point in your life that used a few tones at the start to call your attention. All Islanders, for example, should be familiar with the "bee-bee-boop" sound used to start the "welcome aboard" announcement on the ferries. Well, some train stations use the tone system as well. French train stations, however, decided to jazz it up a bit. They don't just have tones, they have short compositions that involve a woman singing along to the tones. It's quite upbeat, and after a few hours of waiting for a train I found myself even singing along.

So as I write this I'm now in Budapest. The details of my journey here will be in my next post. Some people may be wondering: what happened to visiting northern Italy? Well, it's all booked up I'm afraid, or it seems that way. I've gotten tired of fighting with hordes of other backpackers for accomodation so I'm leaving Italy for another time, perhaps in a less busy season.

I still haven't seen much of France, but I'm not too worried as I figure I'll be back. France is just so easy for me to travel in compared to other non-English speaking countries. I also toy with the idea of getting a work visa for France and living there to improve my French, as I'm beyond the level where classrooms can help me anymore.

For the first time in my life I feel really glad that I took the late French-immersion program (here's a brief description for any non-Canadians). It's not that I ever regreted it before, but I never really felt that it had done me a huge service or that I had come out of it very fluent.