Romania and Moldova

Transylvania Bound

As has become a tradition, I head for the airport as the hurricane warnings go up. This time, Romania. (Another frequent flier award ticket.)

At the Continental counter I attempt to check in but there is a problem: my reservation (what I see on my screen) does not match the eticket (what they see on theirs). The computer won't allow me to check in. The agent calls over another gal. Together, they can't make it work. They call the help center, which has to call the tech people. Now there are four people trying to fix the problem. The minutes tick by. They call to hold the plane. After an hour there is no apparent progress and the plane departs. Finally, they get it unstuck. The new plan is to reroute me on Northwest, for I need a paper ticket. After two flight coupons, the printer runs out of ticket stock. The refill inventory is locked in the safe. They try another machine, but it won't allow a partially completed ticket be printed. They void the transaction and start again, but my new reservation has disappeared from the system. Back to the help desk. Finally, a ticket spews forth. I have been standing there for two hours.

I trudge over to the NW counter. The flight leaves in twenty minutes. "For international flights you are supposed to check in 2 hours in advance," scolds the agent. I (mostly) hold my tongue. My boarding pass has the dreaded SSSS, make me a selectee for extra-intrusive security screening. I ask her to override it (she can). She refuses. Great security system: the program assumes all involuntarily rerouted passengers are likely hijackers. (Same thing happened to me in July on Delta.)

I am flying to Amsterdam, now on NW via Memphis. The flight is chockers. How galling for a super molybdenum elite to be given a middle seat, but at least the one next to me is vacant. The plane is an ancient DC-10 with refurbished interior but no personal video screens in back. Showing on the big screen: Garfield. Good thing NW still has free drinks.

In Amsterdam I have about an 8 hr layover. There is nothing I particularly want to see, so I hang around the airport. Very nice lounge. The Rijksmuseum has hauled over some paintings and set up a mini-museum in the airport. Very considerate, and free.

The flight to Bucharest is an evening one, and I don't arrive until 11 PM. My bag shows up quickly. I grab a cab and am at the joining hotel by midnight. Explore now offers single supplements, so no roommates on this trip.

We meet up at breakfast. We are 15. Usually, I am the only American, but this trip is unusual: 7 of the 15 are yanks. Not only that, REAL Americans! A couple from Missouri and one from Texas. The other two are the usual Bolsheviks from NY and LA. Our leader is a local guy. Prior to a city tour he starts us off with a selective view of Romanian history. Not surprising, in it everyone else is the bad guy and Romania the victim, from the Romans down through the Russians.

First, Revolution Square, the renamed plaza in front of the Central Committee of Communist Party building where Ceaucescu made his last speech before boarding a helicopter to meet his unexpected but well deserved fate. The square looks like a parking lot now. The exhortatory slogans have been replaced by a Johnnie Walker neon sign. The surrounding buildings bear pock marks from bullets fired at the demonstrators in 1989 before the magic moment when the troops refused to shoot the people and joined them. Our leader is young. I figure the stories he tells of life under communism are mostly second hand.

Between the wars Bucharest was known as the "Paris of the East." Ceaucescu didn't care about those buildings -- he could do better. One-sixth of the city was leveled to building Victory of Socialism Boulevard, as long as but one meter wider than the Champs d'Elysee, at the end of which lies the Peoples Palace, the second largest building in the world. It is hard to believe that its design came from the winner of an architectural competition.

In 1989 the building was only 2/3 complete, but calculated it would cost more to raze it than finish it. (It's still not completely done.) It is a monstrosity in every sense of the word. The facade is now enhanced by air conditioning units hanging off it. Only two people have spoken from the balcony, one of whom, Michael Jackson, opened with the words "Hello Budapest," thus ending his welcome. Yet, the people of Bucharest have a perverse pride and affection for this pile. Astonishingly, there is not enough government to fill its 3000 rooms so it is available for hire for wedding receptions, etc.

Facing the Palace is a smaller edifice, home of the Academy Roman, formerly knows as the Academic Institute, headed by Madame "Hillary C" Ceaucescu, who wanted her own seat of power. She got the firing squad along with Bill, I mean, Nicolai.

In Romania, everyone is a millionaire. The average wage is 5 million lei/month. The problem is that is only $150. They look forward to 2007, when they anticipate joining the EU. What will that mean? In the words of our leader, "It will be like Ireland." Free money today, free infrastructure tomorrow, and the right to take high paying jobs in Western Europe. Just wait until they find out the costs.

We finish our city tour with the Village Museum, where they have dragged huts from all parts of the country and set them up in a city park. They may have looked picturesque in situ, but don't show well next to the sidewalk.

As Caesar would have noted, all Romania is divided into three parts. Wallachia is the home of Bucharest and Vlad the Impaler. Transylvania has been traded/conquered back and forth with Hungary and is currently split between the two. Moldavia is currently split; the eastern half, a/k/a Bessarabia, was the Moldavian SSR and is now the Republic of Moldova.

We drive to Transylvania and Sinaia, a ski resort and site of the two summer palaces of the Romanian monarchs. (The deposed king is 83 and lives in Rome.) We arrive near closing time and visit the smaller one, interesting because of its mock medieval exterior and art nouveau interior. Someone in the group asks "Didn't the Germans damage the place during the war?" Wrong question, fool! The Romanians were on the other side. It was the Russians who looted and pillaged while "liberating" Romania. The guide offers a diplomatic answer.

Our hotel is the converted staff quarters of the palaces. Tourism here is well-developed, so the digs are fine. Dinner is at a hunting lodge restaurant. In keeping with the theme, I order the bear medallions, which are served with a violin and accordion accompaniment. Tastes like bear.

The program calls for a morning hike through the soggy, foggy woods. Half of us eschew that for a visit to Peles Castle (the big palace), one of the great castles of Europe. The exterior is Disneyesque and the interior lavish. Different rooms are in different styles, e.g., Turkish, French, English. Reminds me of an 19th century theme park of interior decorating.

In the afternoon we drive to Bran Castle to visit a real castle. (Real in the sense of medieval.) Built in the 14th century, it lies in Wallachia on the Transylvanian border. It is billed as "Dracula's Castle" because it looks right and located almost right. (At the time the novel was written, it was abandoned. It later became a royal residence.) It is surrounded by tourist traps: the Vampire Mall; the Skeleton Tavern; and dozens of T-shirt shops.

Dinner is in Brasov, a medieval German city founded by the Teutonic Knights. Its German name was Kronstadt, but I like its later moniker, Staline. All the restaurants are Italian, which is OK by me. (I don't recall seeing any Romanian restaurants in Italy.) The language sounds like Italian. The travel agencies all feature trips to Italy. There is a statue of Romulus and Remus in Bucharest. And they have adopted the Italian practice of parking their cars anywhere and everywhere.

Outside the city walls, where the non-Germans lived, is the first school in Romania. The "schoolmaster" has been there for 36 years. We take our places at the student desks, he picks up a 200 year old textbook and reads from it a description of a visit to London. Then, a lesson on the discovery of America. He pulls down a map and explains that Romania is a Latin island in a Slavic sea. Landlocked (the Black Sea coast then was part of Turkey), they were unable to cross the ocean and had to wait to be discovered by the Americans. Unfortunately, the Russians got there first.
From Brasov we take a sleeper train. What a pleasant surprise, first class! (A violation of the Explore credo: the experience is more authentic when you are suffering.) The cars are retired from Germany, but perfectly comfortable. We travel to the extreme north right to the Ukrainian border (it's just across the river) where a bus awaits. We have a peasant breakfast, i.e., tons of cheese, eggs, sausages, and other food I don't eat. Then, to the "merry cemetery," where the lives of the deceased are commemorated on their tombstones with a cheery chatty message from the departed along with a colorful illustration from his life. Along with the occupational tableaux are depictions of people getting hit by cars or wrapping them around trees.

The day is mostly spent driving. This is Matamures, the heart of scenic Romanian folk country. Picturesque villages and 300 year old wooden churches. Many new houses and others in various stages of construction by people who gotten jobs in the West. One thing in common among the peasant houses -- strings of garlic. Protection against vampires?

We are spending two nights at a ski resort. The summer season has ended but it is too soon for snow, so we are the only guests. We start with a 6 AM wakeup call to catch the narrow gauge forest train, one of the last working steam lines in the world. It is still being used for logging and has just recently opened for tourists. When we arrive, we are told we must wait because our train was dispatched to send additional workers to the logging area. While hanging around the yard I watch the full employment economy in action, or, how to unload a trailer of cement bags without using a forklift.

After waiting interminably for the tourist train to return, we join a work train hauling empty log cars up the mountain. The passenger car is an open carriage. We are moving at walking speed, proven by the fact that at every bend the same group of German tourists has set up their camera tripods to photograph us. The engine runs on wood which showers us with burning cinders. Everyone's clothes are ruined: one guy's jacket catches on fire, and my nylon jacket is perforated. We were told to bring waterproofs, not fireproofs!

The workers, not so delicately attired, are drinking schnapps and playing cards for high stakes betting stacks of 100,000 lei notes.

After about an hour we stop by a stream to water the engine. It takes a while to refill the boiler and build up a head of steam.

Eventually, we leave the train to begin our hike. We continue up the mountain along old logging roads. There are wolves and bears in these woods but all we see is a salamander. As we approach the summit we are treated to glorious alpine vistas and meadows. Up here we need to be wary of the truly dangerous beasts -- shepherd dogs which viciously guard against the aforementioned wolves and bears. Then, the long trek down along cowpaths back to the road. The train ride and walk take the whole day.

The next morning they crank up the chairlift which takes us to the top of the ski slope (beats walking!) and we walk down the other side to meet our bus. The point? Yeah, the views are nice, but it also looks good from the bus.

We drive into Moldavia. Lunch stop is at a small city. I watch three teenage guys are walking down the street ogling three girls in tight pants walking ahead. The girls turn in towards a church, and as the boys pass by, they (the boys) reflexively cross themselves.

Then to one of the famed painted monasteries of southern Bucovina (the region we are in). Many Orthodox churches are painted on the inside; what is different is that these illustrations are on the outside. After 500 years the scenes aren't in the best of condition, but is the thought that counts.

We are supposed to spend the night in an unheated alpine hut, but, as the last trip of the season we get a break. It's too cold so we have an inauthentic experience and stay in a resort lodge, a very nice one. Like all the places we have stayed, the rooms have cable TV. No matter how many or few channels on offer, there are always a couple with nonstop folk dancing and peasant singing. It's their version of PBS. Flipping around usually finds something watchable. My fave are the commercials: one for Dallas reruns pits Ceaucescu vs. JR (guess who's worse?); a UN "anti-corruption" advert shows fatcats laughing while people sicken and die (but not UN officials getting huge kickbacks under the Oil For Saddam's Palaces program).

The next day's program includes a 10 mile hike. When I wake up, it's raining. I am glad I had already placed myself on the injured list (Incipient shin splint form all the downhill of the past two days). We start by driving to another painted monastery, from which the others will walk to the next. I stay with the bus and miss out on the mud. We meet up with the trekkers in the afternoon. This monastery has plain walls, but is considered the Big Enchilada. It was founded by Stefan the Great, who united Moldavia in the 15th century and who is buried here. The interior, too damaged to repair, is being repainted. When we enter an old guy with a long beard calls down, "Where are you from?" He is the master fresco artist whose previous commission was the artistic end of converting a church in London from Anglican to Syrian Orthodox. That's it for this part of the tour.

An overnight sleeper back to Bucharest takes us to a (too small) bus for the five hour drive to the Danube Delta. We reach Tulcea, almost to but not quite at the Black Sea. Poking around, I conclude that half the economy is based on the consumption of minute quantities of beverages and the purchase, care and feeding of mobile phones. On the main shopping street is a Magazin Economic, the state ration store. The shelves are full but the shop is empty. Our leader explains that the prices there are only slighter lower for the same items at private shops and higher than in the supermarket.

Our home for the next two nights is a "ponton," a houseboat barge with bar, dining area, and lounge on top and cabins below. Not luxurious, but unexpectedly comfortable. Being pulled by a towboat cuts down on the noise and vibration. In the afternoon we head down the shipping channel. Along the banks are what look like hobo camps with fishermen tending 4 or 5 poles each -- they are fishing for supper, not sport.

The Danube Delta is one of the great avian sanctuaries of the world. It has 3000 square miles of wetlands, and is on a flyway. Unfortunately the bird season -- early Spring and late Fall -- does not coincide with the summer tourist season. After dinner we watch a video on the birds we won't be seeing.

After a peaceful night on the river, we board the towboat and go chugging through the reeds. Occasionally an egret or magpie appears, and once even the wake of a swimming otter. We stop at a village named Mila 23, located at mile marker 23. (At least they are using proper units of measure.) The village was settled by Russians and Ukrainians. The church is Russian Orthodox and the children mostly blond.

In the evening a sunset cruise. More reeds. And seaweed. All in all, this delta experience could be skipped.

On day three we head back to Tulcea. A bus ride back to Bucharest, arriving in late afternoon. I get a chance to walk around and see where we are. The US embassy is just around the corner, so there's plenty of security. This is the historic district, meaning fine old buildings that Ceaucescu didn't get a chance to demolish. A few have been spiffed up, but most are in decay and surrounded by commie era concrete hulks.

This is the end of the tour. Our final dinner is at the wonderfully tacky Dracula's Restaurant. The door is flanked by flaming torches, and entry is gained by pulling a bell rope, whereupon a peep door opens. The interior decor offer coffins and severed heads. The menu includes Evil Salad, Devil's Chicken, and Van Helsing's Dish. The food is very good but the chef is not hip to the theme because he uses a lot of garlic. Around 10 PM the lights go down, the fog machine and sound effects start up, and we get a visit from out host, the Count himself.

Back in the USSR

Sunday morning the rest of the group heads for the airport. I go to the train station. My destination is Moldova, but I lack a visa. If I flew there I could obtain one on arrival at the airport, but there is no fun in that. There is direct rail service, but no visas available enroute. Visas are offered at certain road crossings, so that is my plan: by train to Iasi, then cross over by bus. The taxi fair to the train station comes to 33,000 lei ($1). I give the driver a 50,000 bill and tell him to keep the change. Just created another supporter of W's foreign policy.

It's a six hour train ride to Iasi, a place not far from where we were just a few days ago. In keeping with my high social status, I travel first class. The ticket costs $20.

Iasi (pronounced "yosh") is the capital of Moldavia and the third largest city in Romania. It is a big center of Romanian culture and university town, but devoid of tourists. The streetcars are recycled from Switzerland -- they still have the Bern city seal and German advertising in German. Switzerland is where the hotels in Bucharest must have gotten their pricing model, but here things are priced right my room in a 3 star hotel costs 21 euros. The hotel is a 1923 structure that has been completely renovated. The elevator is a very nice Romanian model, but it doesn't go all the way to the top. (There must be a metaphor there somewhere.) Across the street is a 13 story concrete hulk that served as the commie era government hotel. Next door is a very elegant hotel designed by Gustave Eiffel, which is where party officials would have stayed when conducting the People's business.

It's evening when I arrive so I don't get to see much. In the morning I wander about. Many nice old buildings. Lots of old churches, but half are covered in scaffolding. The people here must be very fun-loving, or guilt-ridden, or both. During the lunch hour long lines of penitents queue up at the cathedral to pay devotion to the icons.

Urban planners' fantasy of an integrated downtown commercial/residential mix has been realized in Iasi: apartment blocks have been inserted in every vacant space. Lots of women are sweeping up leaves with homemade rakes; the concrete may be crumbling but the streets are clean. When (and if) the euro arrives, half the storefronts will be vacant as they are currently occupied by moneychanging establishments.

For dinner I locate the Chinese restaurant. Immigration must be tough -- a local girl is serving. Surely the owners must have a niece or cousin in Shanghai who needs a job.

I decide to stay a second night. My hotel is full so I cross the street to the hulk. I am pleasantly surprised to find that has been privatized and is being renovated. The lobby is partly done, and on my floor half the rooms have been completely gutted. My room, one of the finished ones, is gorgeous, completely up to international standards (except no shower curtain yet). If I am not the first guest in it I am close. All for 25 euros. When they are done, I can see another star or two coming (currently 2 stars). They still need to get the word out because at breakfast, unlike at the other place, I don't see anyone in a suit.

The morning is sunny and clear. I give a thought to another day in Iasi, but mustn't tarry -- I've got places to go and things to see. Destination: Chisinau (Kishinev in Russian), capital of the Republic of Moldova.

The conveniently located bus station is now a supermarket, so I take a taxi to the distant new (as it were) station. The bus pulls in half full. The guy who sold me a ticket ($3) asks, "Visa?"
"No. Sculeni" (the border crossing), I reply.
"Sculeni, problem. No visa? Taxi!"
"No problem, Sculeni," I insist and board the bus, which proceeds to the supermarket where everyone else gets off.

The bus is a converted panel truck vehicle into which too many seats have been installed. The windows don't open. I'm glad it's not summer. New passengers drift up. A police van arrives. Our driver starts pulling out all sorts of documents and certificates for inspection. The cop finally finds some deficiency and leads the driver to his van in which an office has been set up just for writing tickets. Our guy has to wait his turn, which takes half an hour.

The border is only ten miles away. No problems exiting Romania. At the Moldova side the driver gets out and goes to the shack. A cute girl in a beret comes out and smiles, "Do you want to buy a visa?" The right question and the right attitude. We head over the office building, upstairs and down the hall to a door marked "consular office." No one home. Beret girl tells me to wait. A few minutes later she returns with a well-fed, well-dressed woman who speaks no English. She is not unpleasant, but obviously interested collecting my $60 quickly so she can get back to her tea break. For that sum I get a nice, colorful sticker in my passport. I am back outside before the others in the bus are done presenting their passports.

We continue on. The road goes to hell. It was built to soviet standards and probably hasn't been repaired since they left. We parallel the railroad track, which looks fine and is how I will be leaving. No picturesque villages here. Instead, decayed old buildings with high rise slums on the outskirts. (That was Ceaucescu's vision for rural Romania: replacing individual houses in villages and small towns with apartment blocks.)

I was the only one to change money at the bank at the border -- $20 -- at what I thought was a decent rate. About a half mile further we pull over and a money changer gets on. Everyone, including the driver, does business with her.

The bus serves more of a local transport function than long distance. All along the way people get on and off. I am the only one who goes the whole distance to Chisinau. (Actually, the bus was already 3 hours into its route when I boarded and will continue further.)

In the center of the city I debus (the word makes as much sense as "deplane"). As part of the complete experience I have elected to stay at the Hotel Turist. From its tacky architecture and bad art to the icy demeanor of the staff, everything about this place screams Intourist (which I am sure it was). Add to soviet design and workmanship 15 years of no maintenance. The $20 room rate represents a 1 1/2 weeks average wage. (The few nice places to stay are a major multiple of that.) At reception I am handed two copies of a form and told to fill out both -- no carbon paper here. She hands me a key. (What, no keylady? Who is going to spy on me?) Riding the elevator is like being in a flight simulator. Evidence of other guests is scant.

I have snatched a brochure from the front desk. They have learned marketing, sort of. It brags that the restaurant offers "inflammatory wines." "Those who prefer to see to see the sights of the city can use our Volvo." I was going to ask for the keys, but then read "the hotel staff is equally friendly to everybody." No doubt true.

My room could have been called dowdy -- in 1970. No TV. My view is of laundry hanging on the apartment block opposite. Behind that looms the Academy for Economic Studies. I wonder if the scope of academic inquiry there broaches such concepts as hard work, honesty, and freedom.

Time to explore. The city is mostly consists of quiet, tree lined streets, but the main street is bustling. Horrendous unemployment leads to lots of sidewalk vendors. No pedestrian rights here. Black Mercedes and BMWs (probably stolen from Germany and reregistered) parked on the sidewalk; other motorists are actually driving on the sidewalk. An upscale, enclosed shopping mall is full of molls -- tall, thin girls dressed like hookers. (Moldova is a major source for the white slave trade.) Not many old buildings -- this place was pretty well flattened during the war.

As you might expect, a big WWII memorial. Lenin and Marx are gone, but many commie era statues are still standing but with their Russian lettering removed. The official language was Russian but is now Moldovan, which is Moldavian with 70 years of difference, which in turn is a dialect of Romanian. ("Moldavia" is Romanian for "Moldova.") Moldovan was written in Cyrillic, but now uses the Roman alphabet. Not at all confusing.
I declare the next day museum day. First is the water tower, a city landmark. Admission, 8?. It features photos of old Kishinev, much of which is gone. At the top is a view of the city along with large photographs of the new, improved soviet architecture.

Next, the archeology museum. Admission, 15?. I am the only one there. People have been living in these parts a long, long time.

There's no one around to collect my 15? at the history museum. Most of the commie stuff is gone, but there are a couple of cool
war posters.

The tickets to the art museum are relics printed on newsprint and cut from the sheet with scissors. The price of 10 kopecks has been crossed out and "10 lei" handwritten above. I'm looking for paintings of happy workers and peasants, but they must have been sent to the basement for safekeeping. The best find is under a staircase: a heroic bronze of a bare-chested worker wielding a hammer. I try to sneak a photo but can't because of the attendant accompanying me from room to room turning on the lights.

It's movie night. The big cinema in the park was built by German POWs in 1947 (whadya mean the war ended two years ago? Fuhgettaboudit, there's work to be done!) On offer: I Robot. In Russian. That's no impediment; it sucks in any language.

And now for something really different. In 1991 Moldova seceded from the Soviet Union. A sliver of territory between the Dniester River and Ukraine, populated mostly by Russians and Ukrainians, refused to go along and in turn seceded from Moldova, declaring itself as the "Independent Republic of the Trans-Dniester." Moldova sent in troops to quell the revolt, then Russia sent in troops as "peacekeepers," where they remain today. It's a "country" of unreconstructed communism, with its own army, currency, and laws, but unrecognized by any other state.

I hop on one of the frequent buses to Tiraspol, the capital. It would be the second largest city in Moldova, except it's not really in Moldova anymore. At the "border," everyone flashes their Moldova or T-D id cards. My passport makes me a marked man. I get pulled off the bus to be interrogated (in Russian). Luckily, a savior appears: also on the bus is a law professor with impeccable English on his way to lecture at the university. He translates the usual bunch of impertinent questions. I have to pay a registration fee (50?).

If Chisinau is bustling, Tiraspol is, in a word, quiet. Very little traffic. Old people hanging around government buildings. (The future of social security.) No other tourists. It is probably a safe bet that I am the only American tourist in T-D. That's the way I like it.

I decide to contribute to the local economy. I change 50 Moldovan lei (around $4) for 30 T-D rubles. The economy here is a mystery. Outside observers believe it is based on smuggling and the international arms trade. The T-D ruble is so worthless that the unconvertible Moldovan lei is considered hard currency. The notes I receive I are of different denominations but all the same size and of similar hue. I don't know how people manage.

I wander about the city. Lots of good commie stuff. This place is what Russia would be like had the putsch against Gorby succeeded. An active private sector, but The Revolution endures. Sights include the House of Soviets, House of Pravda, and various memorials and statues. Oddly enough, Comrade Kirov is missing from his pedestal of his eponymous park. Pointing my camera at the statue of Lenin in front of the Presidential Palace draws the attention of a black-suited guy, who flashes his credentials and starts questioning me (in Russian). Once I convey that I was only photography Uncle Vlodya, he responds, "Lenin OK."

Tiraspol is only 60 miles from Odessa. I would like to go, but have no visa for Ukraine, and none are given at the border.

In Moldova the wage level is around 1/3 that of Romania. Here in T-D, it's about 1/3 that of Moldova. People here are desperately poor. They stand on the sidewalk offering bric a brac and handmade goods for sale, but there are no buyers. For those in the pipeline, there are a number of fancy shops with imported luxury goods.

After about 4 hours, I figure I have seen everything. I bought some pastries and fruit, but still haven't been able to spend my 30 rubles. I visit the post office and buy some T-D stamps. Small, monocolor, and nondescript, they are good only for internal postage. Just like Confederate stamps. I hope mine become as valuable.

On the way out, no passport check at the Moldovan side. They don't think you left. There is, however, an "internal customs" inspection. Guess they wanna be sure that no one is smuggling who hasn't paid a bribe.

Day four. My train isn't until 5 PM, so I soak up the ambiance. The soldiers wear the Russian-style pizzaplate-size hats. The buses look like they were retired from Romania. Old men in suits wear their campaign ribbons from The Great Patriotic War. And, oh, did I mention that the women are stunning? Tall, willowy, delicate features, clear skin, perfectly groomed and coifed. Best of all, they dress like prostitutes. Beat me on why their cousins across the river in Moldavia can't begin to compare.

My train ticket includes a 10 lei insurance policy. The certificate says that if I die in a flaming wreck or get crush on the tracks they will pay me $30,000, oops, make that 30,000 lei. At the station the information booth charges 5? a question. The mind races: do right answers cost more; how about stupid questions; does asking if they have change of a dime count as your first question?

There are about 15 trains a day listed on the board, but only one going west. All the others are to various points in the former USSR. Instead of the usual junk food, the kiosks are selling sausages and other provisions for themultiday journey to Moscow or beyond.

My compartment mate is a retired surgeon now living in Prague. He is Moldovan but has lived in Cuba, Tashkent and other far-flung outposts of the evil empire. His daughter is now studying dentistry in Fort Lauderdale. His English is pretty good for a guy who has only studied it in books for 3 years but had never practiced conversation. The big mystery to me is how he can afford a first class ticket on his $40/month pension. (He gets no discount and has paid the same $40 fare as me.)

At the border each railcar is raised up for crews to change the bogeys from Russian to European gauge. The process takes about 2 hours, during which they also do the passport and customs check. Handing back my passport the Romanian officer says "God bless America." Another Bush supporter.

The train is a sleeper with arrival in Bucharest is early morning. I've got my hotel picked out: a 3 star for 40 euros, which in this overpriced city is a steal.

Its a beautiful Fall day so I go walking. They got the fountains going on Commie Blvd. The History Museum displays the national treasures, consisting of ancient, Greek, and Thracian gold, church ornaments, and the royal baubles. They also have a full size replica of Trajan's Column (original in Rome) which depicts the conquest of the Dacians.

The second leg of the journey back is the afternoon plane to Amsterdam, where I lay over for the night. The airport hotel costs me a budget busting 55 euros. The hotel is an Etap, one of those ultra-efficient new designs that are just a step up from a Tokyo capsule hotel.

The final and third leg is back to Jacksonville. As is my custom, I linger in the lounge and don't check in until the last minute. I ask whether a better seat is available. The gal comments that the flight is pretty full, but I hear the printer whirring. Out comes a new boarding pass. Row 1. Sometimes it pays to dress nice.

Trip date: September 2004