Eastern Europe

In the spring of 1995, I decided to start an around the world trip. My cousin Rob got me a discount ticket Germany through USair. From Germany, I was going to take the train to Poland and up to Estonia. A friend of mine name Jenny, who I had known from my college scuba diving class, had moved to Kohtla Jarve, Estonia, while working for the Peace Corp. She told me I was welcome to visit, so I decided I was going to do just that. From there, I planned on taking the train to Moscow and catching the Siberian Railroad to Vladivostok. From Vladivostok, I would catch a ferry to Yokohama and see my friends in Japan again, before flying home.


After landing in Germany, I made my way over to the train station and bought a ticket. I was in a hurry to not miss the train and as I went down the hallway, the ticket salesman screamed at me that I had forgotten my notebook. With everyone starring about me, I ran back and grabbed it, saying “danke”. I ran down to where the trains were and found my platform. The problem was, there were two trains at that platform and I didn’t know which one was going to Poland. The train on the right started to move, so I ran and jumped on it, hoping I had made the correct choice. After asking around a bit saying Warsaw like “vorsava?” and pointing in the direction of the trains movement, someone finally said “ya”. I found a cabin and sat down on the cushioned bench with my huge Eastern German military back pack. At our next stop, a Russian man and another from Warsaw got on and sat next to and across from me. Eventually, the conductor came by and asked for tickets. I showed him mine and the guy from Warsaw walked out into the hall and just gave him some money. The man from Russia, opened a suitcase full of tickets and started handing them to the conductor. The conductor was saying “nyet, nyet” as he threw the tickets on the floor. It became and argument and the Russian guy started crying a bit and yelling. He kept looking at me, like he wanted me to help, but I didn’t have any idea what was going on and now being behind the old Iron Curtain, I wasn’t going to take any chances. I looked up in my Lonely Planet guide and told him “Nye panimayI don’t understand. I tried to just look out the window and ignore him. I really wanted to help him, but I wasn’t sure of what was going on. Eventually, the conductor and two men came back. They stopped the train in the middle of nowhere, at night, and kicked him off. The train started moving again and I watched as he faded into the night, standing there with his suitcase, crying.


After a while, the other man tried to speak a little English mixed with German. I had taken that year of German in high school, which I had failed, but a lot of it came back when I was under pressure to know it. I tried asking the man what happened with the Russian fellow. From his broken speech, I think he was telling me that the man had gone to Germany, but wasn’t allowed into the country, so he was trying to get back to Ukraine. Apparently, he not only didn’t have a ticket, but no money to pay the conductor, or so I gathered. The ticket from Germany was expensive, but once I entered Eastern Europe, prices were much cheaper.


That night the man from Warsaw and I slept in shifts so we could watch each other’s belongings. I also tied my stuff to my arm just in case. Laying on my back, I put my big cowboy hat over my face and got some sleep. The train stopped a few times, but no one else came into our cabin. The Warsaw man said that when they looked in the window and saw a big cowboy laying in there, they got scared and moved on. He thought that was great!


We arrived at the Central Warsaw station early in the morning. The man was kind enough try and help me buy a ticket to Estonia. We went to a ticket counter and waited in line only to find that you can’t buy that kind of ticket here. You needed to go upstairs, but they also did not take credit cards, so I needed a place to exchange money. When I turned around to walk to the money exchange place a man in a trench coat and hat came up to me and showed me Polish money. I said “no, thank you, nyet, spasiba” to him and walked around. He followed me a bit, but then gave up. After exchanging money, we went upstairs and were able to get my tickets. I looked at the money and I had a 100,000 zloty note and a 10 zloty note. What? Either one was really large or the other was really small! I found out later, that due to inflation, that had just chopped off four zeros and they were equal! I got the tickets, I thanked the man very much and he left. I still had 8 hours before my train, so I wondered around and eventually went outside. There was a large wall overlooking a huge intersection. I climbed up and sat down. I sat there for an hour or two with my cowboy hat and back pack. People kept waving at me as they drove by. Then a bus full of school girls pulled in front of me, waiting for the light. The girls went nuts. They pulled down their windows and start yelling and blowing kisses at me. I waved and tipped my hat at them until they drove off.


It finally came time for me to catch the train, but I couldn’t read any of the Polish. In Germany or other countries, the words look similar enough to English, that you can figure it out, but Polish is very different. It took me a while of wandering around for me to figure out what Polish was for “track”.


After we crossed into Lithuania and after a few requests for passports and tickets, it was time for bed. I had a sleeper compartment shared with a salesman who was heading to Riga. He spoke very little English and I spoke even less Russian, so it was a strain to communicate. He seemed very friendly and we got along well. Before bed, the stewardess brought us some milk tea in a class with a metal holder. The tea was pretty good and after we finished we closed the door and turned off the light. I laid in bed watching the scenery go by, but the click clack of the train quickly put me to sleep. Soon, there was a knock at the door and the door opened and the lights came on. I looked up squinting to see two men. I handed them my tickets and they said something and handed them back to me, so I handed them my passport and this made them content. They handed it back and moved off down the hallway. I got up, turned the lights off and closed and locked the door. Soon, I was back asleep. An hour or so later came a knock again and before I could even sit up, they had unlocked the door and I looked up to see two women with machine guns standing there. That woke me up real fast. They turned on the lights and I handed them my tickets and passport, but they kept asking me questions, in Latvian, I think. Then they turnd to my comrade and made him get out of his bed in his underwear. They lifted his bed and searched through all his belongings. He had booze and a lot of money, but they didn’t seem to care. When they were done with with, they turned to me and started making all sorts of demands. My comrade, promptly raised his voice and yelled at them while pointing to me. They stopped talking, turned around and left. I have no idea what he sad, but it was good with me!


As the night went on, we were interrupted a couple more times, but nothing like that. In the morning, we got to talking and I told him that I was planning to ride on the Siberian Railroad to Vladivostok. He responded with “dangerous!”. Then said, “moment” and ran off down the hallway. A few minutes later he came back with a girl who spoke English. He had her explain to me how dangerous the railroad was. How they would blow the tracks to stop the train and rob it, and other such tails. The girl’s name was Dorota and she was from Warsaw. She was heading to Tallinn to study Estonian culture as part of her schooling. She was studying to be an anthropologist. I was impressed with her and we talked until we got to Riga. The salesman had to get off the train. I waved goodbye to him as he left. He had been most helpful. I talked to Dorota a lot until we reached Tallinn. She gave me some Estonian change to use with the payphone, so I could call Jenny when I got there. When we finally got off the train, I thanked her and said goodbye. She gave me her contact information in Warsaw and Tallinn in case I needed help.


After she left, I went to a payphone and called Jenny. I told her I was in Tallinn and asked how do I get to where she is. She was about to tell me, when the phone said something in Estonian and hung up. I didn’t have any more change, so I was going to have to find a bank or something to exchange money for the phone. I began asking for a bank in Russian, but got an extremely rude response. There was a woman in a small window and I asked her. She yelled “nyet!” and slammed the window shut. I double checked my Russian in the book and what I said, should be right. It took me while to figure out that if I spoke English first, then Russian, they were far more polite. The Estonians hate the Russians for what they did during and after WWII. When I spoke Russian first, they thought I was Russian, but when I spoke English, they figured I was British or something. Eventually, I got someone to tell me where a bank was. It was on the third floor of the building I was in. I went upstairs and walked into the bank. There were some customers standing around, but no employees except a guard. It took me a while to figure out that the bank was closed for lunch. It was just passed noon, so I sat outside for and hour and came back. At about 1:30, the employees came back and sat at their desks talking with each other, but they still didn’t open. It was another 30 minutes before they started helping customers. When it was my turn in line, I handed her a bunch of $20 bills. She looked at each one and rejected it, until she finally found one that she liked. All the rest she handed back. For that $20, I got a stack of Estonian money, but I tried to tell her I need change. I pointed to a coin on her desk and she said “no”. “no coin”. I was thinking “what kind of bank is this?!” I tried clarifying again, but she assured me that the bank has no coins. Well, that was a waste of two hours. I went back downstairs and tried to get change from some stores, but they wouldn’t help me, so I finally bought a chocolate bar or something. Then I went to the payphone on the wall and called Jenny. I got a fast busy out of service tone. I tried again, this time carefully putting in the numbers. Same thing. It was then that I noticed people buying cards for new phones at the other end of the hall. Hell, I thought, I’ll give that a try, so I went and bought a calling card. When I went to the calling card phone and dialed, some Estonian woman answered. I said “is Jenny there?”. She went on in Estonian for a bit and hung up. I called again, just in case I misdialed. This time the Estonian woman was mad and slammed the phone. I went back to the place I bought the card and showed them the number I was trying to dial. He shook his head and wrote her number with the first four or five digits different and waved for me to try again. I went back and called the new number and finally got her! After 3 hours, I finally got a hold of Jenny and now I had something like 1200 minutes on this card!. She told me what train to take and said she would meet me at the station. I later learned that there were old Russian phones just outside the building that were free, since they couldn’t take any of the new Estonian money. The calling card phones I had used were for probably for foreign calls. I used three phones and evidently needed three different phone numbers to call the same person. What a fiasco!


As I pulled out of the station I saw a whole train yard of steam engines. In Estonia, it felt like I was back in 1940. The home phones were still rotary and the handsets would have made good weapon. When I tried calling dad from Jenny’s apartment, it was hard to hear and we would get cut off every 30 seconds or so. After a few times, I gave up. At least he knows I’m there an alive.


It was summer in Estonia and that meant 23 hours of daylight. One evening we were out walking around shopping and looking at things when I came to realize that there weren’t any people any more. Where was everyone? Then Jenny said, its almost midnight. It was still broad daylight, so I had no idea! In her apartment, she had complete black out shades because of this. It only got dark from about 1 AM until 1:30 AM and then it started to get light again.


All the buildings were Soviet era style and they looked exactly the same, with no color or style. The only way I could tell which building was mine, was by what toys were out front. Kids played everywhere, even with open manholes and sharp cut off metal posts sticking out of the ground. No one seemed to mind. In the States, people would have freaked if the children’s play area were this dangerous.


Another left over remnant of Soviet era, was the complete lack of advertising. The only way you knew where a store was was to ask someone. I remember going into this, what looked like a deserted building, only to find that on the inside it was a beautifully decorated wedding shop with mahogany wood trim an polished wooden floors that you could see yourself in. But, there was nothing on the outside of the building, not even a sign!


On a Saturday, Jenny had off, so we went to Narva. There we saw the Narva castle and the Ivangorod Castle on the opposite bank in Russia. They were in the process of tearing out the old Soviet icons when we were there. Jenny took my picture as I leaned on a statue of Lenin that they were taking down.


I inquired about going to the Russian side, but it was a $100 to the the visa and it took several days. So, I thought I would just wait until I was ready to cross into Russia. When we returned to Kohtla Jarve, I called me father and he informed me that his company, Nortel, had offered me a job. I really needed the job and the money, so sadly I sad yes, I will take it. I found that the cheapest place to fly back out was Warsaw. I told him to tell them I would take the job, but it would take me 4 or 5 days to get back.


The next day, I went back to Tallinn. Dorota was still in town, so we met and explored the town together. We found this little tiny hole in the wall Italian restaurant and had dinner. Tallinn was a beautiful town. It was filled with old northern European style architect, except one part of the town that they had left destroyed. The Russians had bomb Tallinn during WWII just to show them whose boss and they left part of the city that way as a memorial. At the Kino Soprus movie theater was a huge sign for Forrest Gump. As we walked around Tallinn and past the government building a of caravan of vehicles pulled up and the President of Ukraine got out. He waved at the people and headed in to the building. Next, we went to the shoreline of the Baltic Sea and I took my shoes and socks off for a little dip. The water was cold but refreshing.


I told her that I would be heading back to Warsaw and she said that she was too, but earlier than me. She said that she would be happy to have me stay at her place for the few days until I caught my flight.


On the way back to Poland, I was sitting in the seating area of the train and a man sat down next to me. He motioned to ask if I was hungry. I nodded, so he put his bag on the floor and opened it up. He had a half a pig in it! He pulled out a knife and cut off a big piece of fat and handed it to me. He also handed me a thick piece of dark brown bread covered with a thick layer of butter. The bread was delicious, but the pig fat, was, well, disgusting. I took a small bite until he smiled and when he wasn’t looking, it went out the window. He asked if I wanted some more and I patted my stomach to say I was full.


I got up to go to the bathroom and in one of the other compartments, they had a huge meal set up. Apparently, everyone brings their own food to eat for the long trip. When I came back, I talked with the man for a while in “pictionary-ese”. He asked if I was British. I said “no, I’m American” to which he responded “why would you want to come here?!”. I told him, the I want to see what its like everywhere.


I watched out for the window for a while, seeing that cows in Lithuania were tied to chains like dogs, instead of having fences, but the countryside was beautiful. It reminded me of Ohio. When we got to the Polish border, they stopped the train and the border guards got on the train. They saw me sitting there, with my cowboy hat on and asked for my passport. I handed it to them. They looked at me analyzing my face and looking at my passport. They said “moment” and got off the train. I saw them go to a guard shack and get on the phone. They were on the phone for about 30 minutes and kept pointing to the train. I was getting a little worried. Worried the train would leave without my passport and worried why they were holding the whole train up for me. They finally came back and five armed guy starred at me while one, who spoke a little English, asked where I was born, what my name was and how old I was. Obviously to test if my responses matched the passport. I almost got the last question wrong as my birthday had just been a few days before. I said “22, no, I mean 23!” The last thing I wanted was to get the answer wrong and end up in some Lithuanian prison somewhere! But, with answering all the questions right, he stamped it and handed it to me. I said “spasiba” to him and he laughed and said “puzhalsta” back. After that, the guy that had been sitting next to me, said that I look like a smuggler, because I was wearing the hat. I thought about that for a second and realized that the only criminal types, like the money guy in the train station, that I had seen all wore hats. What? Why would criminals identify themselves?! If I had known that, I certainly wouldn’t have been wearing my hat!


When I got to Warsaw, Dorota was there to pick me up. It was great to see her again! She took me old town were we and her friends had Pizza Hut. It was so cheap, I bought everyone’s dinner. After that, we went to see Pulp Fiction. The movie was hilliarious, but half the screen was subtitles in at least 3 different language. During the film, Dorota had some kind of seizure that lasted about 10 seconds. I grabbed and was trying to figure out what was wrong when she snapped out of it. I asked if she was ok and if she wanted to leave, but she said she was fine. That worried me and I never found out what happened. After the movie, we went to a very tall building to go up and see the whole city. The man said they were just closing, but we convinced him to lets us go up. I took a great picture of her up there.


When we got back to her apartment, she got me settled in and said that she would go to a friend’s house and that I could stay here. She told me that her apartment building was one of the few remaining buildings after the Russians and the Germans had leveled the city.


In the morning she came back and we had breakfast. I think it was oatmeal and toast, but it was good whatever it was. Afterwords, she took a shower. Her bath had translucent glass and I could see her through the glass. It made my heart race as she was very beautiful. When she had finished she told me that she had to go to work and that her sister would take me around for the day. I spent the afternoon seeing the sites including the “King’s Bathroom”, a park in Central Warsaw. It was beautiful, with many fountains and peacocks. There was also some sort of outdoor theater.


When it came time to leave, I was very said to go and there were a few tears. I tried to get Dorota a parting gift, but couldn’t find anything she liked. When I hugged her I tried to put some money in her bag, so she could buy something, but this made her mad. It was a dumb thing to do, but I just wanted to say thank you to her for helping me so much. Before we left, we tore a 1 zloty in half and each kept half. When I got home, I sent her the pictures from the trip and a letter expressing my love for her, but never heard back. I put that half zloty note and the picture of her at the top of the building in a frame. I hope I get to see her again some day.


When I returned I got the job with Nortel this would lead to my lucrative run in the telecom industry, but I never was able to complete my round the world trip.