Escaping the Corona Virus – to an Island in the Middle of the Atlantic

Seriously, folks, that Corona virus is getting out of hand. Every day now, it’s crawling or rather racing closer. And people are crazy enough to still go to work or celebrate carnival – all of it without washing their bloody hands.

No, this is too dangerous.

I am out of here.

Luckily, I found a house/cat sitting assignment on the island of Faial, and if you don’t know where Faial is, that’s a good sign. Because then the virus won’t know either.

It’s really, really far in the Atlantic Ocean, part of the island group of the Azores, which, thanks to Portuguese sea- and statesmanship, are part of the European Union.

azores2blocation

map Faial on Azores

There will be two cats, Maxie and Whitey, of whom I will take care, and who will take care of me, I hope. Other than that, it’s a small island with some surprising bits of history, so I will be telling you stories told to me by whalers, fishermen and pirates. Or by their parrots.

pano_faial_02_282923282511629

Faial is famous for diving and whaling, none of which I am into, but it also looks like a small hiking paradise. And without too many distractions, I hope to get a lot of work, writing and studying done. As always, if you want a postcard, let me know!

volcanic-caldeira-of-faial-azores

On Faial, the only Corona should be the beer, although I am more curious about Kima and Laranjada. And please, let’s stay in touch and do let me know when the pandemic will be over and it will be safe to return to the continent.

Links:

Posted in Azores, Health, Portugal, Travel | Tagged , | 18 Comments

Film review: “Parasite”

Usually, I am a few decades late with my film reviews, but this time, I manage to recommend a movie that is still playing in cinemas: Parasite.

4932ff83fb2b3fa2794c84e3f8d54f8cA cleverly constructed thriller, fast-paced, humorous, but also a social critique. Too much for one film, you may think, but Bong Joon-Ho pulls it off.

Sometimes, it’s quite obvious, with the rich family living on top of a hill, and the poor family living, or rather surviving, literally at the lowest level of Seoul. But it never becomes a caricature of either stratum. The poor family is clever and smart. The rich family is nice and friendly. Initially, viewers may assume that “parasite” refers to the poor family cheating their way into the life of the rich family. But then, why would it be parasitic to want someone else’s money, but not to want someone else’s time and labor? Aren’t both feeding off each other?

What I liked most about this film was that it didn’t make me develop obvious sympathies for one side. As the plot evolved and it became obvious that there would have to be a clash at some point, I was rooting for both sides.

And just as the tension became almost unbearable, a third family and with it a third social layer showed up. It’s complicated, but never confusing. Unless you are trying to think of a way out to reconcile the interests of all three families. Because that’s not possible, like in real life. The film is a metaphor for our market-driven society that calls itself meritocratic but is deeply exploitative. Parasite leaves so many thoughts lingering in your mind, to come back to much later, long after the girl with whom you watched it has left you – because she felt you weren’t quite up to her economic standards, ironically.

Just one warning: In the end, it becomes true class warfare, Tarantino style. I found the ending out of place. But for the first 90%, it’s more Hitchcock, suspense without violence.

Links:

Posted in Economics, Films | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments

Two Night Trains to the East

I am calling them night trains on purpose, not sleeper trains, because when I booked the tickets, I couldn’t discern if there would be a bed, maybe even a shower, or with how many people I would share the dormitory on wheels. Actually, I can’t even read my own ticket.

ticket cyrillic

Flights from Nuremberg to Kyiv start at less than 50 €, but then you have to pay extra for the backpack, the Coca Cola at the airport costs 3 €, and it’s stressful and poisonous for the planet.

“There has to be a train,” I am thinking, because there is a train to everywhere in Europe. Around 200 € says Deutsche Bahn, the German railway website, and I realize that it can be quite expensive to travel environmentally friendly. But I have experience with Eastern Europe and I know that there, train tickets are as cheap as if the countries were governed by green Gretas.

Therefore, in Amberg I only purchased the ticket to Prague. I used the Czech Railway for the ticket from Prague to Krakow, the Polish Railway for the one from Krakow to Przemyśl, and the Ukrainian Railway for the ticket from the border to Kyiv. That’s a bit complicated, but I saved so much money that I can easily extend the holiday by a week. And it allowed me to include time buffers of several hours in case a train will be cancelled or hijacked. I also timed the night trains in  a way that they will reach Krakow and Kyiv in the early morning respectively, in line with my biorhythm.

But now I am boarding the first train in Amberg. The hope for interesting conversations, without which this article won’t work, is disappointed brutally. The 20 minutes on the regional train to Schwandorf are as silent as if the train had been chartered by a deaf-mute association. Well, if you had to commute to school or the courthouse every day, you would be depressed too. Especially now in grey December, when everyone is already scared of Christmas.

On the train from Schwandorf to Prague, I share the compartment with an elderly couple who is only going to Furth im Wald, but keeps looking nervously into the timetable. “You know, I wouldn’t even dare to make such a trip alone,” the wife confides in her husband. When I tell them that I have another two days on the train ahead of me, she almost faints with fear.

I am settling into the compartment, taking off the heavy winter boots and putting on the slippers. Ahh, that makes all the difference. Now, I feel like in a cozy chair next to the fireplace. And the other passengers as well as the conductor can easily spot the professional traveler. Although, instead of saluting, he inspects my ticket extra carefully.

At the train station in Furth in Wald, a surveillance camera is being installed. It will probably die from boredom after a few months. I am threatened by the same fate, because now I am alone in one of those old six-seat compartments with low chairs, that remind of the time I was commuting to university in Regensburg, back when you almost suffocated from cigarette smoke on trains and were fighting for permission to open the window.

Andreas Moser im Zug nach Prag

Taking no notice of the border, the train scurries into the Czech Republic. “Be careful in the East, it’s dangerous there,” West Germans had told me. West Germans who had never been to the East, had no idea of it, and didn’t want to go there, for fear of having their prejudices, based on a long tradition of dividing people into Germanic super-humans and Slavic sub-humans, questioned. I, on the other hand, am looking forward to the East. Four different countries, four different languages, all in one short train ride.

From the neighboring compartment, heavy noise conveys what the problem is with train journeys to Prague: the people from Bavaria who are well aware that Prague is a wonderful city worth a visit, but much less aware of how to behave accordingly. Four boys are getting drunk, shouting obscenely and in an ugly dialect. I wonder if those are the same people who would generalize any misbehavior by a foreigner in Germany and attribute it to the whole population of that country?

In Domažlice, a lady opens the door and asks in Czech whether she may take a seat. I reply affirmatively in my limited Czech, but she notices immediately: “Oh, I better speak German here,” which she does fluently. She shakes my hand, introduces herself as Branka and explains her formal approach: “I am so nervous, because I am taking the railway for the first time in 30 years! When I was a little girl, I often used to take this exact train to go from Prague to our weekend home near Domažlice. I still know the names of all the stops”. Except that the train no longer stops at every milk jug. Everything has become quicker in the last 30 years.

She is trying the train now, because driving has become too stressful for her. “Whenever I sit in a car, I push the pedal to the metal. I just cannot drive serenely, maybe because I used to drive races when I was young. In a Mini Cooper.” She was also the Czechoslovak student champion in slalom and a long-distance cyclist, it will turn out.

“When I was young,” she will say again and again that evening, but she is brim-full with energy, curiosity and drive, more so than many 40-year olds.

She shares apples from her garden, tangerines, travel stories, book tips (I should take a look at Karel Čapek) and her wisdom with me, and time flies.

“When is your birthday?” she asks.

“On July 6th, Jan Hus’ date of death,” I reply, thankful for the opportunity to finally apply this bit of useless knowledge.

“Oh, that was really mean how he was lured to the council and then murdered,” she is getting all agitated, as if it happened recently, not 600 years ago. And from there, we quickly turn to the topic of contemporary relations between Germans and Czechs.

“I find it sad how little the people on our side of the border know about your country,” I begin carefully. Jan Hus is just one example, completely drowned out by German Luthermania.

“It’s worse than that. They look down on us, they always feel superior,” Branka expresses what always bothers me. Because, dear Western European readers: regardless of how nice you try to be, people will notice that you only use them as cheap handymen or care workers, without any interest in their country, their culture and their language.

“You should write a book,” Branka says as our ways part, asking if she can take a photo of me. When I offer a photograph together, she refuses, giving her age as a reason. “But I am already 73.” If I meet such talkative people on every train, then the book about the longest train journey in the world could indeed become interesting.

Disembarking in Prague, I glance into the compartment vacated by the four Bavarian boys: a crate of beer, all bottles empty, some of them broken, the floor sticky. The Germans with their anti-Slavic superiority complex should have to look at this. I still hear them blaring and swearing throughout the railway station, wishing that there was one Soviet sniper left from 1968 to take them out. I’d rather see some blood spilled than more beer.

And then there is more screaming. Two girls are acting like crazy, jumping up and down. They have just left the bookstore, opening “Quo Vadis?” by Henryk Sienkiewicz.

In the large waiting hall, there is a piano for everyone to play. A young man in denim trousers and jacket, Balkan type, the hands covered in tattoos, is energetically playing a happy tune. Not quite Firkušný, but much better than all the “Last Christmas” crap which you hear everywhere else this month. On the keys to the far right, maybe between d4 and c5, there is a hat for appreciative coins.

Piano Prag

Next, an Asian boy sits down and plays as masterly as if he had four hands. Maybe he is from Nagasaki or Fukushima. The travelers who are usually rushing through the station are stopping, their faces lighting up with joy. But then, the mobile phone of the Japanese guy rings. He already has to leave. What a pity.

The most beautiful place in the Prague railway station is the old waiting hall, relic of a time in which train stations were flagships and temples of welcome for their respective cities, in which the railway served the people and the coalescing of the country. Now, where everything has to make economic sense, there are hardly any waiting halls. They have been replaced by shops, bistros, snack bars, sushi bars and so on. Those who wait are supposed to purchase and to consume, for else they are useless in capitalism. Just sitting around, reading, talking to each other, contemplating, sleeping, these are almost rebellious acts.

Wartesaal Prag.JPG

And then the train to Krakow is ready. My plank bed is in a 6-bed compartment, so narrow that I cannot imagine how six people with luggage would get along here. But for now, I am alone, preparing the bed and stowing away the backpack. At least the bed is long enough (I am 6 feet tall).

Sechserabteil

There will be one co-traveler, a fellow lawyer and globetrotter, as it turns out. So the journey continues to be blessed by interesting conversation.

Regarding the remaining four berths, the conductor informs us that their occupants will only board the train later, but that he doesn’t want to wake us up. Therefore, he will send them to an empty compartment. He also promises to wake us 15 minutes before Krakow, at 6 am, because the train will then continue towards Slovakia.

“What a nice guy,” I am thinking about the conductor until he asks us to lock the door because there would be many “gypsies” on the train, stealing things. That racist comment is particularly inappropriate because we are exactly on the railway route along which Roma and Sinti were sent to their death. Going to Krakow means going in the direction of Auschwitz. For some of the Nazis’ victims, the lesson has set in that it makes sense to stop stigmatization, discrimination and marginalization before it comes to another genocide. Thus far, the Roma and Sinti have been denied this conclusion, not only in the Czech Republic.

I can’t really sleep because the train is jolting and jumping. When you sit upright, you don’t notice it that much, but trains tilt so much to the left and the right that at times, my head hangs down like that of a sleeping bat. Sometimes I wake up, so I must have fallen asleep, but there is not much sleep, let alone any quality sleep.

The young Czech lawyer, on the other hand, sleeps without any problems, probably because she is completely overworked. I am just relieved that she sleeps without any breathing problems. My biggest fear before embarking on this train journey will not materialize. The whole 2000 kilometers will be snoring-free.

At Krakow train station, there would even be showers, but – apparently not quite the professional as I had thought in my slippers – I forgot to bring a towel. An extensive shave has to suffice to wake me up. I already know Krakow quite a bit, and an early morning in December is not the best time for a walk around town anyway. So I get the next ticket for the train to Przemyśl, the last town on the Polish side. Maybe I can catch up on sleep during the three hours on that train.

All the other passengers are well rested from a night in a real bed, strengthened by coffee brought to their bed, and are happy that it’s Friday, although once again it’s Friday the 13th. They are talking with colleagues about their weekend plans or reading books by Elena Ferrante (young women), brochures with legends of saints (old women) or playing with their mobile phones (men).

The sun is just waking up and covers everything with strong golden colors. Even the power lines, the windmills, and the chimneys with their red-white bands in the distance look good in that glowing light. Finally, I fall asleep, totally relaxed, for Przemyśl is the last stop and someone will wake me up if I don’t manage to do so by myself.

goldener Morgen (1)goldener Morgen (2)

I actually feel sorry for places like Przemyśl. Everyone is passing through, changing trains, changing money (because on this journey, four countries also mean four currencies: euro, crown, złoty and hryvna), and then they are gone already. A town which for most people is only a name and a barrier blocking speedy travel, as long as Ukraine won’t be in the Schengen zone. If that ever happens, Przemyśl will die.

The large and beautiful train station does however imply some erstwhile importance of the city, which hopefully reaches beyond the siege of 1914-15, the battle of Gorlice-Tarnów and the ghetto in Garbarze.

Przemysl

Here, it’s quite pleasant to kill the hours before I will be leaving the EU. (Someone should have told the United Kingdom how easy that can be done.) And it already feels more eastern. In the underpass to the platforms, a man is playing accordion. A family with a baby brought a plastic toilet for the baby, emptying the pot somewhere outside. The houses opposite the train station are losing their plaster and their colors like trees in eternal fall. A student is writing a theater play on his laptop. A girl plugs her phone into the socket in the wall and walks out of the waiting hall, unconcerned about theft or loss. The taxi drivers in front of the station are sharing a pizza. The announcement board indicates that the train from Kyiv will be one minute late.

Probably, Przemyśl would deserve a longer stay, after which I could bore you with pages of details about its history. But after two hours in the sun-drenched waiting hall, I am also changing trains, from the Polish State Railway to the Ukrainian State Railway. The border is only 10 km away.

The Ukrainian train has one conductor for each carriage. He already checks the tickets before boarding. He ought to check the weight of the luggage instead, because most passengers are carrying several large suitcases, heavy plastic bags from shopping sprees, and flat-screen TVs so large that you might as well put them up in Poland, and you could still follow the football match from Ukraine. Coffee machines seem to be popular too, maybe because Christmas is near. Someone will be very disappointed because she was actually hoping for the first 50 volumes of the Library of World Literature. Some of the heavy boxes may even contain arms shipments for the Donbas, who knows.

The train is packed to the last seat and I didn’t get a window seat, so there are no photos from this ride. You would see grey fields with little villages of little grey houses. Only the golden-domed Orthodox church provides a dash of color. In a few days, snow will be covering the potholes in the road.

I can hardly focus on rural Ukraine, because the train journey is a constant passport, immigration and customs check. First the Polish border control ladies who allow me to exit. Half an hour later, I am awoken by the Ukrainian border control ladies who allow me to enter. The the drug control with a cute black-and-white dachshund who is really very interested in my bag, putting the nose deeply inside it. Not because of marijuana, but because of a tasty cheese straw.

And finally there is the Ukrainian customs inspector, who picked up his friendly demeanor under the tsar or in the Soviet Union. With a metal stick he lashes out at suitcases and bags, about every fifth, and bellows at the owners that they should carry their belongings into the corridor and unpack everything. It’s obvious that he would like to use the metal stick to hit the passengers, too.

And swoosh, the two-hour trip is over. In Lviv, I realize how lost I will feel in a Cyrillic country. Like in China, only colder. But an aimless walk arouses longing memories of Vilnius. Electric mobility, which is only now gaining traction in the West. Old ladies selling garden produce on the side of the street. Little huts selling everything from Coca Cola, sandwiches, lighters to bus tickets. Holes in the pavement as large as craters.

The train station is from another time. All the wooden benches in the waiting lounge are occupied, most of them with old grandmothers, old gentlemen with fur hats and faces furrowed by life and leprosy. Some of the old people use magnifying glasses to read the paper. One man has wrapped his right leg in an orange towel and is limping along with the aid of a piece of wood, broken from a pallet, in lieu of a crutch. If you have a wheelchair here, you are already part of the elite. Same with gold teeth versus missing teeth. But nobody smiles anyway. Many have dozed off already, some will never wake up again.

Lviv Bahnhof (2)Lviv Bahnhof (1)Lviv Bahnhof (4)

The ceilings are high like those in a castle. Each time the heavy wooden doors are opened, a gust of ice-cold wind comes inside. As if to remember the Jewish history of Lviv (or Lemberg), every announcement starts with something that sounds like “shalomni passazheri”. Buffets no. 8 and no. 18 are selling meatballs, coleslaw from a large pot and gherkins which you pull from a glass with plenty of dill.

The waiting lounges used to be divided into first and second class. The first-classy is the only one that still has empty seats, probably because one hour of waiting costs 30 hryvnas there. I don’t know how much that is, but a bottle of beer also costs 30 hryvnas, a bottle of Coca Cola 25, so it can’t be too expensive. I allow myself the luxury. The benches are just as hard, the light just as dim, the loudspeakers just as loud. And because it’s mainly rich people congregating in this luxury lounge, unfortunately they all have those little monitors to watch movies and to annoy everyone else with the associated sounds. It was nicer to wait among the poor. And more interesting.

Lviv Bahnhof (3)

As if to justify the fee, the administration of the railway station has added extension cords with multiple plugs to all the power sockets, so that everyone waiting can charge their pocket computer. Again and again, someone gets up and asks their neighbor to keep an eye on their mobile phone and their belongings, disappearing for 15 minutes. Speaking of the toilet, I guess I only found the second class one, without a seat, without paper, just a hole in the ground.

I am nervously excited how the night train to Kyiv will be.

It is a 4-bed compartment. And elderly woman with a strict haircut, a strict white blouse, and a strict gaze through strict glasses hardly finds me worthy of a word. She looks like a senior secretary from Soviet times and is visibly appalled that even foreigners get to use the nationally-owned trains now. We have the two lower berths, opposite from each other, and she is sitting on hers, absolutely stiff and without  moving her face, like a monument.

“This will be boring, but at least it will be a quiet night,” I am thinking, as a young couple enters the compartment. The husband speaks English and happily so. His wife looks at him, admiring his cosmopolitanism. They run a line of shops together and have been to Lviv to provide some training to the staff there.

The two have the upper beds, reached by a fragile fold-out ladder. I notice that the two are talking about how to get up there, and I offer that I can sleep on the upper bed, so that the rather well-rounded wife can move into the bed downstairs, foregoing the dangerous climbing expedition. The husband thanks me very politely, but refuses with a short poem: “Easy wife, easy life.”

The strict lady doesn’t speak a word with the Ukrainian couple either, so I no longer need to take her treatment personally. Everyone in the compartment wants to sleep, it’s already midnight, after all. But the young man still wants to talk about football, about Germany and England,  about his love for fishing, what large fish can be found in the Dnieper, that I am lucky to be in Kyiv for the New Year, and so on. If I should have any questions during the night, I should please wake him up, he offers – probably after having seen me struggle wit the bed sheets.

Until this journey, I had never traveled in a sleeping car because I had thought that one would share the cell with snoring drunkards. Instead, I have met interesting and friendly people. But the limited space is a problem. If somebody wants to change clothes, all others need to leave the room. Because I am traveling with polite people, I quickly realize that even without being prompted, it is customary to leave the compartment from time to time, feigning a need to smoke, to eat or to marvel at the landscape. Another practical problem is that there are only two washrooms for the 40 passengers in the carriage, of which at least one has no running water. Good that I only ordered a bottle of water when the conductress took up orders for tea, coffee and biscuits last night. It’s enough to brush the teeth. But a proper cleanup will have to wait until the next station.

Although nobody snores, I can’t really sleep on this part of the journey either. In Ukraine, too, the train is jumping and jolting as if it were to fall over any moment.

At 6:46, exactly on time, the torture is over. Kyiv Passenger Station. It’s a cold Saturday morning, but the station is full and active like a beehive. The free waiting halls are full to the last seat, even the special ones for children, for disabled people and for pregnant women (those are three different ones because the mothers-to-be must not be confronted with the shocking sight of children that have already hatched). Many places at the station don’t advertise opening hours, bot only the one hour when they are closed (usually between 3 and 4 in the morning). The comfortable waiting lounge is even more luxurious here, but now I don’t need it anymore.

Kiew Wartesaal erster Klasse

Thousands of people come and go ever minute. They buy newspapers, sweet pastries, bouquets of roses. Here, the train station is not a place for holidaymakers trying to avoid global warming with their choice of transport. Here, boyfriends are visiting their girlfriends, grandmothers their grandchildren, students are going home, and soldiers are going to war. Pensioners are going to the annual meeting of the former Kryvorizhstal steel workers, widows are going to funerals. Refugees from the war go home to look if their house in Shakhtarsk is still standing. Convicts are going to Lontski Prison to start their detention.

kiev-train-station-11012017-136

My journey is over for now, sadly. It was the last train journey in 2019. Whether I will go for a sleeper wagon again or rather interrupt the journey and sleep in a proper bed on my next trip, I still have to think about that. This time, the weather was grey and depressing, so I didn’t miss too much. But when it will be beautiful, it would be sad to pass the Bukovina or the Beskids while sleeping.

I am leaning on a windowsill, writing all of this into a notebook, when an elderly gentleman approaches me and asks something. After I regret that I speak neither Ukrainian nor Russian, he points to the part of my arm where he suspects a watch. Now I understand, and I can provide the requested information. Apparently, he still has enough time before the departure, because he first points to his bags, then to me, then looks in a questioning way. I nod and affirm, and off he shuffles to the bathrooms, which by the way are without seats even in the nation’s capital.

So this is my first impression of Kyiv: a city of a few million people, where someone entrusts all his belongings to a complete stranger, whom he met for the first and last time at the busy railway station, and with whom he doesn’t even share a language, without hesitating. I think I am going to like it here.

Practical advice for booking:

  • Book each section as far east as possible. The websites of the German, Czech, Polish and Ukrainian railways are all available in English.
  • The earlier you book, the cheaper it is. But if you are traveling spontaneously, you needn’t worry either. There were free seats/beds in each of the trains I took, so you could have gotten tickets at the station.
  • I paid around 120 € for the whole trip, but you can get it cheaper if you book early. The German national train operator Deutsche Bahn also runs cheap buses to Prague or Krakow, but then it won’t be a train journey.
  • If you want to have a 2-bed room, it seems that you have to book a first class ticket.
  • Don’t book the return journey in Germany or Western Europe. It will be much cheaper to buy it in Eastern Europe.

Practical advice for the trip:

  • You are not at a fashion show! Slippers and jogging pants are most comfortable.
  • Pack a small bag with all the stuff you need during the night and in the morning. Because the large backpack/suitcase is often stored under the lower bed, so you won’t be able to access it while someone is sleeping there.
  • I personally would split longer journeys, allowing you to catch fresh air, a proper bed and a shower. As I walked past the open compartment doors upon arrival in Kyiv, there was quite a stench coming from some of them. Five days to Vladivostok non-stop may be an olfactory challenge.

Links:

Posted in Czech Republic, Germany, Poland, Travel, Ukraine | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments

My Valentine’s Day

It is February 14th, a day marked by mawkishness for many but a regular working day for me. Therefore, I am spending the evening in a café to read a book in the company of cake, mineral water and a cigar.

The comfortable sofas are already occupied by couples holding hands, as if they were afraid of getting lost, or like one holds the leash of a cat who would much rather roam around freely.

Two guys who can only have graduated from the conservatory in microphone and loudspeakers, if at all, are singing the cheesy songs (something with “love” and “heart” and “forever”) so badly that I would even prefer a repeat of the Eurovision Song Contest.

Cardboard hearts are hanging from the ceiling like gallows rope, as red as blood. Probably cut out by kindergarten kids. Or somewhere in China. Or by Chinese kindergarten kids.

The girls are dandified and made up even more than usual. The boys managed to find something else than jogging pants and sneakers, for once. The tables are adorned with wine bottles, because on a special day, you need to drink something special. That the something special is the same at almost every table is a contradiction which nobody notices or which nobody is bothered about.

The truly special appearance is me, because no one else in town seems to muster the courage to leave the house and to visit a café alone. Only in pairs or quadruplets. Never as a triplet. The friends are mainly asked to come along so that everyone can photograph each other, post the photos without delay, and comment on said postings. A group of four has control over at least four mobile phones, each of them having at a minimum one Facebook, one Instagraph, one SnapApp and several WhatsUp groups, making it almost a full-time job.

I observe many couples who, on that supposedly romantic day, are having far less eye contact and conversation with each other than click and like contact with a gadget (also produced by Chinese children). If they do speak with one another, then only to shove small monitors in front of their partner’s faces and to obtain appreciative comments for the hearts added to the photos. The hearts are of course exactly the same ones as used by all other couples here and elsewhere tonight.

That’s OK. If people want to live like this, let them be. But nobody should use the word “romantic” for this kitschy, commercialized, petit-bourgeois ritual.

Those leading a romantic life don’t care what they do on February 14th. And they will care even less about how many online likes they get within an hour.

The more I look around and the more couples I see who will soon get married because their friends did, who will soon have children because their friends had some, who will get into debt for an apartment because their friends did the same, and who will get divorced after five to seven years (and that’s the relatively lucky half), the more I realize that I am the only true romantic here, not having the faintest idea where in the world I will be in a year.

Stadtmauer Kotor beleuchtet

Links:

Posted in Love, Montenegro | Tagged | 6 Comments

“How are you?”

Someone: How are you?

Me: Confused.

Someone: Oh. I am sorry to hear that.

Me: No, that’s OK. I am studying philosophy.

When I first went to Israel on a youth exchange program, I stayed with a family in a small village somewhere in the district of Modi’in. One morning I was sitting in the large yard in front of the house, enjoying fabulous, fresh mint tea and some cookies for breakfast. It was me and two ladies, both somehow part of or associated with my host family.

A car came up, stopped and a guy yelled something out of the car window. It was in Hebrew, so I didn’t understand it. One of the ladies replied, which I didn’t understand either. The other lady helpfully translated her reply to me: “She said ‘That’s none of your business.’ ” I was perplexed, but tried to look as if this was a perfectly normal statement to start a bright and beautiful morning with. My face must have given away that I had been wondering what the question had been, because she added with a smile: “The question was ‘How are you?’

how_are_you_todayThat was almost 30 years ago, but I still remember this moment each time somebody asks me “How are you?” Towards many people who pose this question, I think it’s a rather adequate reply.

I bet many of you are thinking: “Why don’t you just reply ‘fine’ or ‘good’ and that’s it?”

Because that’s exactly the problem I have with the question. If I reply honestly, I am often neither fine, nor good, but worried or overworked or stressed or sad.

Of course I could lie, but I have a strict moral compass. And when you are deeply troubled by something, it hurts to know that someone, especially a family member or a friend, sometimes even a partner, doesn’t really care and only wants to hear “fine, thanks”. Instead of lying and turning my soul inside out, I sometimes answer by telling them what I have been doing or what I am planning to do.

Someone: How are you?

Me: Oh, I just read Martin Eden for the third time. I don’t even remember having done that with any other book.

I do sometimes get puzzled looks.

I don’t know if you have ever tried it, but when you reply honestly, you often notice the questioner’s unease. Even when I dare to venture into detailed explanations of how I am, people sometimes ignore it completely.

Someone: How are you?

Me: Not so good. I have a toothache. And my girlfriend left me. Well, she only said she wanted a “pause”, but then she moved to India without telling me, which I guess is a pretty clear sign.

Someone: I am glad you are OK.

Me: ???

They probably regret having asked in the first place, because they would have to admit that their question was not inspired by genuine care, but was merely a thoughtless repetition of the ever same phrase.

Therefore, between lying and burdening someone with something they don’t want to hear, “It’s none of your business” or the more polite “I would prefer not to say” is really a good reply. Or when people ask online, you can just send them the link to this article.

Two winters ago, I was in Canada and had a terrible cold or something. I went to a drugstore and bought some medicine, the strongest I could find.

Drugstore guy (cheerily): How are you today?

Me (with a runny nose and coughing): I am sick. That’s why I am purchasing this medicine.

Drugstore guy (after I paid): Have a great day!

Me: Well, I have quite a cold, so it probably won’t be a super-exciting day.

He clearly didn’t like it that someone went off script. But posing a question without a genuine interest in the response is not polite. It’s shallow.

Posted in Canada, Israel, Language, Life | 25 Comments

How Climate Change will end

Many big issues are at their heart debates between optimists and pessimists – with some pretentious self-declared realists thrown into the mix. This is also true about climate change.

Will we develop carbon-neutral technologies? Or can we capture the carbon dioxide and store it? Where? How will we finance that? Can we move cities threatened by rising sea levels and increased storms? Can wind and solar energy produce enough energy? Won’t we run out of oil and coal anyway? Wouldn’t we save a lot of emissions if we worked fewer days per week?

I actually think those questions are less relevant than they seem. The future of our planet will not depend on technology, it will depend on human behavior.

Will we come to our senses and consume and produce less? Will we help those displaced by floods and droughts? Will we become more defensive and aggressive at the same time? Or will be become more compassionate and cooperative? Will the rich (basically anyone reading this blog) care for the poor or retire to some refuge?

I have been wondering about this in recent years, as the planet is heating up as fast as never before. Admittedly, I have become ever more skeptical as the population continues to increase and people continue to fly and drive and eat steaks. There are reasons for optimism in between, but they are quickly drowned out by the sounds of a billion exhaust pipes.

And then I came across a book, a wonderful book about a terrible event. Now, I think I know how it will end. I learned it from Svetlana Alexievich’s account of the Chernobyl disaster. Everything about that event is shocking, but nothing more so than the carefree attitude and willful ignorance of people, which, I am afraid, is not limited to those living around the Chernobyl nuclear power plant.

Everything went its normal course: plowing, sowing, harvesting. Something unimaginable had happened, but people lived the way they had always lived.

This was not because people didn’t know about radioactivity. Rather, the problem was so enormous that one had to ignore it to survive mentally. Even if it meant surviving for only a few short years.

That year, our neighbors got a new floor, made of local wood. It was measured, and the nuclear radiation was a hundred times above the limit. Nobody ever tore the flooring out, they are still living with it, thinking: It’s going to be alright somehow, things always work out.

Some will now object that this took place in the Soviet Union and that a market economy provides totally different incentives for people to behave smarter. But no! It was exactly materialistic motivation which let people forget the threat to their health and their families. Someone from the Chernobyl Museum explains:

There was a moment when there was the threat of a thermonuclear explosion, and  the heavy water had to be released from the reactor, or it would have crashed into it. Heavy water is a direct component of the nuclear fuel. Can you imagine that? The task was: Who will dive into the heavy water and open the slider of the release valve? Promises were made: a car, an apartment, a dacha and financial security for the family until life’s end. Volunteers were sought. And they volunteered! The boys were diving, diving several times, they opened the slider, and the squad got 7000 rubles for it. …

The men are all dead by now.

Ok, you may dismiss this as juvenile heroics. But even long after the catastrophe, people were guided by money:

The soil had different levels of contamination, on the same collective farm there were “clean” and “dirty” fields. Those working on the “dirty” fields received more money, and everyone wanted to go there. Nobody wanted to work on the “clean” ones anymore.

When the evacuation of a village was announced a week in advance, people “used” the time to bale hay, to cut grass and to harvest vegetables.

And then someone says we shouldn’t eat the cucumbers and tomatoes. What is that supposed to mean? They taste like always. And people eat them, and the stomach doesn’t hurt.

It was not for the absence of warning voices. A teacher tells of an evening among parents, where a doctor asks the other parents to send their children to relatives. Far away from Chernobyl.

I believe everyone there felt the same: She was causing needless anxiety. …

Oh, how we hated her back then! She had ruined our evening.

And this is how people will continue to behave. They will continue to buy and to produce, to work and to reproduce. They will close the eyes to anything complicated and seek salvation in shallow materialism. Even the last human being will still be proud about all the property he will have snatched up.

That’s how trite the end will be.

Because that’s how stupid we are.

And that, to return to the opening question, is my optimistic scenario.

chernobyl-film-100-resimage_v-variantbig24x9_w-1024

Links:

Posted in Belarus, Economics, Environment, Technology, Ukraine | Tagged , , | 8 Comments

10 FAQ on Couchsurfing

You have heard me mention Couchsurfing in some of my articles, or even seen me looking for Couchsurfing hosts, ever more desperately as the trip comes nearer. “Why is he so crazy about couches? Why can’t he sleep in a bed, like everyone else?”, you may have been wondering.

And you know that I am a big proponent of traveling without much money, both to make it possible for more people in the first place and to have a richer experience. In that respect, Couchsurfing can help, too.

stationary_envelopes

1. What is Couchsurfing?

Couchsurfing is an online platform where people offer a place to stay, whether a couch, a bed, an extra room, or sometimes a space on the floor in their home. These are the hosts. Travelers can look for hosts, contact them individually, ask for a place to stay, and the host can decide whether to accept. There is absolutely no obligation on anyone. The host can even simply ignore the e-mail.

There is no money involved whatsoever! Hosts are not allowed to charge anything for the stay, nor should guests offer any money. The duration of the stay is up to them, but usually it’s for one to three nights, rarely longer.

The Couchsurfing website/app itself can be used for free as well. For a full membership, there is a one-time fee, but even without it, you can send 10 requests per week, which should be enough. You just open one profile, and you can be both a host and a guest with it.

There are several other websites/services like this, for example Servas, Trustroots or Warm Showers, but I haven’t tried them yet. I would love to hear from you if you have any experience with those!

2. Why would people host you for free?

I think there are two main reasons:

(a) People have experienced hospitality themselves and they want to return it, even if it’s to a different person.

(b) It can be quite interesting. I use Couchsurfing in both ways, as a traveler and as a host, and I actually prefer to host people. I have people come to my house and tell me about life in a distant country or life on the road, about their adventures and dreams, and I get all of that without having to pack my bag or even leaving my couch. It’s like the world coming into my living room!

And often, these are people with interesting and motivating stories. As an example, let me pick John and Eva, because they happened to make a video when they stayed with me in Peru. They were on their honeymoon, for which they had set out to hitchhike around the world in two years. As I was listening to their stories, I kept thinking that I should be a bit more brave and daring and adventurous, too.

I have sometimes been hosted by elderly people who couldn’t travel themselves any longer, but still wanted to feel something of that spirit. Or by people with young children, who wanted their kids to meet someone from a different country, speaking a different language (often to motivate them to pay better attention at school, I suspect).

3. I have written several requests, but received no offer to stay. How can I increase my chances?

First of all, it may simply depend on location and time. If you are looking for a host in Venice for Carnival, you will probably be out of luck. (Although I once got hosted in Venice by Enrico, who is an architect there and could give me so much more information about the city than I would have found in a guidebook. And then he took me to the roof of the Biennale building, where he worked, for a truly unique view of Venice.)

But there are a few tricks to increase your chances:

(a) Fill in your profile. Add several photos, write something about you, tell people what you like and don’t like. After all, you are asking to be staying in someone’s house for a few nights, so they want to know whom to expect.

As this is a very self-centered blog, I’ll point you to my own Couchsurfing profile as an example. And be creative! Don’t be the 50,000th profile saying that you “like to travel” or that you are “open-minded”.

(b) Read your potential host’s profile and respond to specific information there. You already want to read it to avoid staying with a weirdo, and if you find something interesting or a commonality, mention it.

(c) Reviews are an important element of Couchsurfing. (More on that in question 7.) Once you have a few positive reviews, people will be much more relaxed about hosting you. If you haven’t traveled yet, you can try to find friends on Couchsurfing who can give you reviews based on knowing you. Or you can host people yourself. Or you can simply meet people for half a day and give them a tour of your town (more on Couchsurfing activities without staying overnight in question 9).

4. That all sounds very stressful, to be honest. Why would you do that?

Indeed, it’s not as easy as booking a hotel. But then, going to an office every day to earn the money for that hotel is stressful, too. And with Couchsurfing, you can travel longer and more often than you could otherwise afford.

But you get so much more than a free bed! Actually, even when I have money (which happens rarely), I sometimes seek out Couchsurfing hosts on purpose. It changes the whole experience of a place. You meet with a local who knows the city and the country inside out, who can explain everything, translate for you, tell you about culture and history, and take you to some tiny restaurant in a basement that you would never have found.

When I was in Jerusalem for the half-marathon, I stayed with Daniel, who went to the registration with me the evening before and took me to the start of the race early in the morning. Alone, it would have taken me much longer to find that. And the days before, I stayed with Jonathan in Haifa, who took me for a really tough training run at night. Without that, I wouldn’t have been able to finish the race in under two hours, if at all.

maraton3

Whenever I moved to a new country, I met people through Couchsurfing who gave me tons of advice, from practical to cultural. People have taken me on hikes or on day trips. They have introduced me to their friends, invited me to barbecues and organized a library card for me.

The countries where you can benefit the most from Couchsurfing are the ones where you don’t speak the language and don’t know much about. For example, a few summers ago, I went to Abkhazia. There was one young guy on Couchsurfing whose profile was in English and luckily, he invited me to stay with him and his parents. Without Omar, I might have walked through the town, up and down the coast, and understood barely anything of the country. With his help and his connections, I met politicians, artists, sociologists and linguists and learned a lot in just a few days. And thanks to his father, I drank the most alcohol-rich drink ever, ufff!

To sum it up, if you are the kind of tourist whose main objective is to post photos on Instagraph, then this might not be for you. It’s more about people than about places. And you might be surprised how often you have the feeling that you have known someone for quite a while, although you just met them that day.

On a long trip, though, I admit that I alternate Couchsurfing with hotels/apartments because I do sometimes need time for myself.

5. How to be a good guest?

Be clean, be polite, be considerable, be helpful if you can. All of that is obvious.

Some guests want to bring presents, but I personally don’t find that necessary at all. Also, without knowing someone, it’s hard to pick the right present, especially as I like to give books. When I lived in Vilnius, I had a lot of guests from Eastern Europe. They all brought booze instead of books. Back then, I didn’t drink any alcohol, so I just passed the bottles on to hosts when I traveled myself.

Some guests offer to cook, but I have neither talent for that, nor do I expect it. Only once, when I stayed with Valdis in Latvia, he was so interested in baking that I made a Kaiserschmarrn, spreading Austrian culinary delights beyond where even the Habsburgs had gone.

I do need to mention two guests here who were so prepared that they read my blog before visiting me in Romania. Thus, Matt and Hunter had found out that I like cigars and chocolate. They brought both, and those cigars from Virginia were the finest ones I have ever smoked.

hiking with Matt and Hunter

But the main thing to do as a guest is not to treat hosts as a hotel. They devote their time, they have probably cleaned the extra bedroom, they have cancelled dates, all of that just to be with you. The least you can do is give them some of your time. If you have a list of 15 sights per day that you need to visit, then maybe Couchsurfing is not for you. Nor if you think that your mobile phone is the most important thing in your life. You should be prepared to spend a few hours sitting on Timo’s couch in Romania, listening to his incredible adventures from hitchhiking around the globe, or smoking cigars on Susanne’s balcony in Vienna, contemplating life and literature.

Timotei Rad

6. How to be a good host?

The most important thing for a host is to communicate expectations clearly and from the beginning. Sometimes, you have time and want to go hiking together, sometimes you have a lot of work and you just want to give the guest a few tips, a map and your bicycle. If you don’t have time or don’t feel like it, there is absolutely no obligation to be a tour guide.

It’s your house, so just tell guests when you get up, when you go to work, and when you go to bed. If someone wants to go out partying until 3 am and I don’t have a spare key for them, I tell them “no”. (This is why clear communication is already helpful when looking for a host.)

I generally try to give people the feeling that they are not in the way. So I tell them what I will do, and if they want to participate, then it’s fine. If not, it’s fine as well. When I will make dinner, I can make an extra plate, but I won’t cook anything super-special to accommodate their ketogenic diet, nor will I change my eating hours just because someone thinks that food after 8 pm is evil.

And one more tip if you have guests coming by bicycle or who have had a long journey: Show them the shower first. They will appreciate it.

7. But what about safety? How can you trust complete strangers?

This is the concern I hear most often, and I don’t even know why. People are afraid of staying with someone who is nice enough to host them for free, and then they pay 50 $ to stay at an AirBnB, which could be the same person in the same house. Capitalism has really messed up people’s minds.

But let me take your concerns seriously:

(a) You can read the references on a profile. If someone has plenty of good reviews over a long period of time, you can be fairly certain that the person is a decent and helpful host. You can even click on the profiles of those who provided the references to find out if they seem legitimate. Also, usually people will use their full name and you can google more information about them. In my profile, I include the link to this blog and to my TEDx talk, so people can research as much about me as they want.

I have also stayed with people without any prior references or accepted them as guests, and I never had any problems. I just read their profile and stay clear of people who sound like Nazis (there are not many on Couchsurfing) or who are into drugs (there are a few more).

(b) By the time you meet, the other person won’t be a stranger anymore, ideally. You can contact them weeks before, you can e-mail, you can speak by phone or Skype. It happened to me once that a potential host asked to speak over Skype before accepting my request to stay with her. I found that absolutely legitimate, and it worked out well.

(c) I would say that in countries where there is reason for concern, you are actually safer if you stay with a local. If I was going to Venezuela or to Afghanistan, I am not sure how I would feel alone. But if I already had a contact who picks me up from the bus station, I could relax. For as silly as I myself might be, I know they wouldn’t want to risk my life.

8. Sure, you as a tough guy don’t need to worry. But how safe is it for women?

The best answer I can give is this: I don’t know because I am not a woman. On that topic, I am looking forward to read comments by female Couchsurfers.

But I have hosted and stayed with many women and spoken about their experiences. Their consensus was: It’s generally fine, people really respect Couchsurfing as a traveling platform, nothing more, with one exception. The exception is Italy.

But there are a few things you can do:

(a) Look for female hosts or for families. Or maybe you have a certain age range that you feel less worried about (very old or very young).

(b) As above, check references and ask them to speak by Skype before. Especially if someone has many references and is traveling a lot, they don’t want to ruin their reputation because it would severely limit their own chances of getting hosted in the future.

(c) If a male host has only hosted women, that can be a warning sign. Having said that, I think my profile also shows that I have hosted more women than men because women are usually more organized and write longer in advance. (I also prefer staying with women because when they say they have a place to sleep, you know there will be a bed in an extra room. If a guy says he has a place to sleep, it can be a spot on the floor next to the washing machine. But people will clarify this in their profile.)

(d) The two creepy stories I heard personally were both from Italy and both from profiles without any references. In one case, the boy said that there was an extra bed, and then there wasn’t. In the other case, the profile was set up as a female one, but a boy (“the brother”) opened the door, saying that “his sister” was away. – In both cases, the female travelers didn’t stay, reported the profiles to Couchsurfing, and they were deleted within less than a day. Obviously, nothing prevents those people from opening a new profile, but then we are back at (b).

Lastly, on this topic, I am ready to concede that Couchsurfing can pose extra threats to women that men are usually unencumbered by. But the same applies to women going to an office, or to university, or going for a run in the park. I don’t think traveling is any different, and therefore it’s not a reason against traveling.

9. I like the idea, but I don’t have a free couch/bed. Or I am not quite ready to spend the night at other people’s places.

Most of the time, I don’t have a house or apartment of my own and therefore can’t host, either. I already miss it!

But Couchsurfing offers a whole range of other ways to enrich your travels and to meet locals, from Couchsurfing meetings where you can simply show up, to hikes or theater visits or language-exchange events organized by locals. I absolutely like the hiking groups, because there I usually find like-minded people. And they often know the way to some beautiful spots that I would never have found myself.

When I stay in a city and I already have accommodation, I will still post on Couchsurfing that I am looking for locals to meet, to go for a walk, to tell me something about their country. This is usually just for a few hours, so no big commitment from either side, but it can give you so much more insight. And of course, it’s all for free.

10. What was your worst experience?

The worst Couchsurfing story actually didn’t happen to me, but to a friend from Iran. He stayed with a woman in Hamburg, they noticed that they got along really well and they got married soon thereafter.

Admittedly, that’s a terrible thing. But I don’t think it happens very often. And anyway, I don’t know why he didn’t simply run away.

Now I am curious to hear from you. What did I forget? What is your experience? Have you tried it? Do you want to?

Links:

Posted in Travel | Tagged | 10 Comments