An Innocent Abroad – Chapter II

Dear Reader, please accept my most sincere apologies for leaving you in such dreadful suspense over the potential “Laundry Emergency” in my last installment.  While it pales by comparison to my “Book a Flight Crisis” this week, it was consuming at the time.  There I was: the peace and prosperity of all freedom loving peoples everywhere hinged on the ability of my hotel’s Laundry Department to deliver laundered clothing the very same day!  Can you imagine?  Believing in miracles is, of course, part and parcel of every trip away from our homes; but, I had inadvertently set myself up to actually rely on one.  Not nearly as dangerous a situation as you might imagine, though certainly foolhardy.

 

But, I come to you, today, with a smile on my face and a clean shirt on my back!  Yes, indeedee-do, Dear Reader, just like the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (or was that just Dudley Doright?), and “The Yard” (yes, that would be “Scotland Yard”), the Laundry Department delivered the goods, as promised.  Of course, it will take me until the next Laundry Day to untie my socks (how do they do that?), and unwrap my shirts (I have quite a collection of little cardboard bow ties – must be two words: “bowties” looks too close to “nighties”).  I am, as they say, a happy camper (at the Hilton, no less).

 

So what of this “Book a Flight Crisis” I alluded to earlier?  That would be transportation, and that falls under:

 

Tepes Travel Tips

 

First, let us please set the record straight: that initial “t” in the word “tepes” just doesn’t sound like a good, American “t” (or British “tea,” for that matter).  That Romanian word, “tepes” begins with their very own, special “t” (no, not like Special K); this particular letter has a little “tail” hanging down from it – but, of course, I don’t have the Romanian alphabet loaded into my confuser, so I can’t represent it.  That little “tail” (no doubt called a diacritical mark, but my mother doesn’t like me to use words like that) changes the “teh” to something more like a “che”; so the heretofore sought-after – and always elusive – alliteration isn’t there at all.  I could just die, I’m so embarrassed.  By the way, the nickname comes from the Romanian word for stake, which is how our good friend Vlad liked to have his guests for dinner; apparently quite the accomplishment to have the writhing victim make it all the way thru to dessert….

 

So, you have a command performance in Budapest next week and need to (are you still with me?) “Book a Flight.”  Since I occupy an office with a view at the airport, it should be a simple thing to saunter on over to the Malev counter and buy a ticket (i.e., book a flight).

 

Well, for starters, all the ticket counters are inside the metal detectors/x-ray machine area, and are not immediately visible when you stand in the lobby like some misplaced beast of burden.  And, what’s this, an Information Booth?  Maybe of the variety that actually traffics in, dare I be so bold, information?  Why yes!  Once so-enlightened, I aboutface and sauntes on over to the closest metal detector/x-ray machine, Number 3, by name.

 

Not so fast moose-breath!

 

Since I am wearing my official airport security badge (be afraid, be very afraid), I can’t use that machine/lane/ whatever it’s called; I have to go to: Number 1.  Thank you very much.  But, no!  As I walk in the direction the kind gentleman in uniform has pointed to, the numbers on the machines are getting larger, not smaller.  Completely baffled, but not entirely undone (that comes later), I keep on walking.  Sure enough, in lettering even I could read (and, in fact, did), Machine Number 7 was for “Crew, Staff.”  Obviously, the helpful guard meant the first machine at that end!  You would have to get up awfully early to fool me, by gum!

 

So, here we are, in the ‘ticketed passengers only” area, without a ticket.  Clearly, an imposter; the deer-in-the-headlights look no doubt giving me away.  Wander, wander, wander.  Aha (yes, I actually said that; I said, “aha” – not “eureka” as some of you might suppose), here is the Malev counter.  But, alas (nope, gotcha: I didn’t really say that), like the fairytale, Goldilocks was not home.  There was a sign on the Aeroflot counter immediately to the right; I think it said something like “Are you Kidding?” but I can’t read Cyrillic, so I’m not sure.  After about fifteen minutes, a gentleman did appear at the Hemus (don’t ask) counter immediately to the left.

 

He really had no idea.  Whether it was no idea who let me in, what I was saying, or when (if) anyone would magically appear at the Malev counter, I would not wager.  There I stood: in front of a tiny little cube – the kind they put serial killers in – wondering whatever happened to Plan B.  Finally deciding that watching half a dozen passengers amble thru was about as productive as I was going to be, and having heard the public address ask, just one more time, to kindly refrain from carrying side-arms on board the airplanes (this is inside the metal detector area, remember), I sought a Way Out.

 

And the Way Out was not (was not way out, that is), either the way out of the secured area, the terminal building, or the parking lot.  Payment for parking was 25,000 Romanian Lei, by the way; which of course brings us to the next:

 

Tepes’ (lack of alliteration notwithstanding) Travel Tips: Currency

 

When I showed up “in-country,” I showed up sans money, for I was assured that there were ATMs on every corner, and most of them worked, and a much smaller, select number actually dispensed the requested sum.  So, I am standing at the ATM in the hotel wondering how much to request.  Push the “million two” button.  Okie dokie, always eager to do what my boss tells me….  Presto, change-o, I’m a millionaire, and I don’t have to struggle with any stupid questions (no, the choice of languages on the ATM was not a stupid question).  Right there in my hot little hands is 1.2 MILLION – count ‘em: 1,200,000!  Can you believe it?  My boss, heck, no the company allows me, no, expects me to handle such enormous funds in a, what, prudent and reasonable manner?  Anyone who would expect me to be “prudent and reasonable” with 1.2 MILLION obviously has a problem left to others to diagnose.

 

Huh?  1.2 MILLION whats?  1.2 MILLION Romanian Lei, that’s what.  Sounds like a lot, doesn’t it (I mean: DOESN’T IT???).  Well when you look at the prices around here, you soon learn that 1.2 MILLION doesn’t go as far as you might expect; not nearly far enough, I might add.  Why, just yesterday, I went back to the ATM to get another 2 MILLION!  Yep, in slightly over two weeks, I have already been “prudent and reasonable” with the first mil, or so.

 

Put that in perspective, will ya?  Ok, 1.2 million ROL is roughly $37; well, it’s probably worth about $35 dollars now.  You see, my hosts finished off 2001 with an annualized inflation rate of only 22%; which is great news, considering the forecast was 31%.

 

Bottomline: this is one place “do it in your head” currency conversion doesn’t work so very well.  So, Today’s Travel Tip is simply: spend, spend, spend (why worry?).

 

Meanwhile, back at the “Book A Flight” conundrum, I decided to call the Malev ticket office.  Of course, I don’t know whether to direct dial from the office phone, or if I would have to dial “9” or some other (apparently universal) access code.  But then, what’s a dial tone sound like in Romania?  What does a busy signal sound like?  Well, the first two calls (I used a “9” for the very first one, and nothing much happened) resulted in some sort of noise, and no voice.  The third call resulted in a different noise and a voice.

 

Well, of course there is no one at the ticket counter sez this disembodied voice: only two hours before a flight would there be anyone at the ticket counter.  How silly of me; and depending on the day of the week, that might be a work shift of only about 2 hours and five minutes.  Sounds like pretty good work if you can get it.  Can I buy the ticket at the airport counter before the flight, or do I have to come into town?  At the counter is fine; Romania’s answer to e-tickets, I suppose.

 

So, I went to Budapest; well, Pest, to be perfectly precise: Buda is on the other side of the Danube.  Passport control and Customs were cakewalks – once I figured out that if I pretended not to see them, they pretended not to see me.  Ah, but how to I get from Ferihegy Airport to my hotel.  Nope, sorry: that’s not “Feringy” as in the characters from the Star Trek spinoff, but “Ferihegy”; ok, not close.  But the question remains: how to negotiate the transportation of my carcass.  The “Airport Minibus,” of course (no, really).  Think of ShuttleExpress in Puget sound; much the same deal.  Forints do help.

 

For-whats?  You know: “forints”: the Hungarian currency.  Not to be confused with American Dollars, British Pounds, Romanian Lei, Monopoly Money, or anything else in my pocket.  Enter the omnipresent ATM; put in the card, pull out a 10,000 Forint note; not quite the millions that I have grown accustomed to, but the principal remains the same: not a clue what it’s worth.  Except that about a third of that 10 grand will be necessary to get to the hotel.

 

If you’ve never been to Budapest, you don’t know what you’re missing, but you are to be pitied (I couldn’t say that last week).  Marvelous, incredible, breath-taking architecture; obviously, a country with a whole lot more disposable wealth than Romania, and it’s been that way for a while, say about five hundred years.  Had a good dinner at some little, walk-down place that I’ll never find again.  A good meeting (well, a lot of discussion anyway; how productive is another matter), and went to the house of an old friend and had dinner.  The next morning, I walked about downtown: feet on pavement (mostly), and eyes just soaking in countless variations of masonry and stone.  Delighted to find some Latin; practically ecstatic to find I could read it.  Back to the airport, back to Bucharest.  Monday to Wednesday.  Whirlwind trip.

 

Yesterday morning on my way into work, I passed a military convoy.  It is still so unnerving to think that it wasn’t so long ago that this part of the world was behind the Iron Curtain.  It is absolutely spine-tingling to recognize all that Soviet hardware; definitely a case of up-close-and-personal not being a good thing.

 

Next time: Driving: How not to get run over.

 

La Revedere!

An Innocent Abroad – Chapter I

No, to those of you who might have wondered if I had “taken a left at Albuquerque,” I have not fallen off the edge; I have been quite busy, and your patience will not go unpunished.

 

May I offer the following:

 

The gentle reader will never, never know what a consummate ass he can become until he goes abroad. I speak now, of course, in the supposition that the gentle reader has not been abroad, and therefore is not already a consummate ass. If the case be otherwise, I beg his pardon and extend to him the cordial hand of fellowship and call him brother.

                                                            The Innocents Abroad

Mark Twain

 

Some of you know, very well, I might add, that, when it comes to world travel, I am hardly an innocent (could I possibly squeeze another comma in there?).  And, for those of you who think of me in rather less flattering terms (with apologies to Balaam’s mount, of course), I beg your indulgence.  That said, if you wish to be relieved of my future literary burdens, just reply to this post appropriately (or not).

So much for the preamble.

 

Yes, I am now firmly, if not safely, ensconced in Bucharest, Romania; housed extremely comfortably in the Athenée Palace hotel; and driving with careless – and, so far, wreckless – abandon on this fine country’s highways and byways.  But how did all this tomfoolery begin?

 

The Phone Call

 

As you may recall (or not), I joined Field Service in September of last year (can we say “9/11”?), keeping well in character for my almost flawless lack of timing.  Having pretty well exhausted my supply of nails to bite, fearful of being thrust onto the street of greater opportunities, I said the only sensible thing when offered this three month “backfill” assignment in support of Romania’s state-run airline: “When do I leave?”

 

 Packing

 

Yeah, pack for three months; what EXACTLY might that look like?  How about two large valises crammed to the gills with every stitch of clothing I had at my disposal?  Well, not quite, but certainly every sock and hanky I could lay my hands on.  And then, of course, the obligatory laptop, that device of flexibility that bears an increasingly strong resemblance to a boat anchor (or millstone for the nautically challenged).  Yes, I put a change of socks in my carry-on luggage.

 

Airport Security, immediately after September 11

 

You’ll be happy to know that I did not need quite all of the three hours that ShuttleExpress suggested to check into my flight; I believe I used about two minutes – and that included picking up the tickets at Ken’s Baggage.  When going thru the metal detector/x-ray machine just before boarding the little underground Sea-Tac train for the South Terminal, I had to remove my laptop from my carry-on so that it could be x-rayed separately.  Other than that, and the two National Guard personnel who couldn’t have cared less if I was there, I saw nothing that could have discouraged a passenger from taking tweezers or nailclippers on his person.  At Heathrow, one gent condescended to actually look at my passport – in passing, as it were.  In Bucharest, well, who wants to come here to make trouble?

 

Reclinging Seats, ala British Airways

 

For those of you who have mastered the art of sleeping on seats with 21-inch pitch, and seatbacks that recline four or five degrees (altho the seatback in front always reclines 50, or 60 degrees, right into your peach melba), you would, no doubt find the 9 and a half hour flight from Sea-Tac to Heathrow in a seat that reclines a full 180 degrees (that would be FLAT) an absolute torture.  I, however, never could sleep on an airplane, and it apparently has nothing to do with the seats.  I did choose to sit in a rear-facing seat, something I haven’t done since coming aboard an aircraft carrier in a Greyhound.  Food? Ok (altho the claret – the British do pronounce the “t,” I found – was rather above what I am accustomed to).  Movies?  Oh, excuse me: Inflight Entertainment (IFE to the cognoscenti)?  I am seldom without a good book, and that trip was an excellent time to have one; I should have asked for a refund, or suggested BA request one from their entertainment director.  Abysmal.

 

London-town

 

No, no one calls it that nowadays (is that really just one word?); but, it sounds so, what, seasoned?  Or simply aged?  In any event, I found the airport Hilton after asking several workers with badges, including one at the “Information Desk”; obviously the Hilton people need to work on their publicity – surely it wasn’t my pronunciation: how many ways can a “Hilton” be said?  Maybe they thot I was saying “stilton”?  Yes, I was wondering around the airport asking, “Where is the stilton?”  That must be the problem.  A marvelous cheese (with a good clareT), but not quite what I needed at that moment.  Anyway, check-in was what I have come to expect of the British: cold restraint.  After checking in, and then returning to The Front to ask for a second key, then tromping back to the Front to be told that a member of the hotel staff would assist me (no doubt my funny accent led them to believe I was challenged) and having had to wait for a hotel staff person to show me how to use it (must be the wrist), I was in my room, and checking my email.  Marvelous invention, that.  Finishing the joy of figuring out which digit to dial to get an outside line, and what number to dial, and punching in my secret code to access the company net, the phone rang!  Zounds! (apologies to Mercutio)

I have corresponded for ages with a gentleman I had never met, and now was my chance!  Yabbut: how to get from Heathrow to Victoria Station?  Elementary!  Go find the Picadilly Line in the basement of Heathrow, Terminal 4, get off at Hammersmith (don’t you just love these names?), transfer to the District Line, and jump off at Victoria.  There are only three stairways off the platform at Victoria, and yours truly of course shunned the correct one; at the top, WHSmith was nowhere to be found.  Yes, quite the fine pickle.  Wander, wander, wander.  Eventually, I did find the bookstore, and my dear wife will be happy to know I did not venture in; then I set off for Buckingham Palace.

 

Is there anything more pointless than two soldiers in long-gray coats with empty rifles and bearskin hats marching back and forth and back and forth and back and forth (well, you get the idea)?  I suppose you might point out that we in America have the same situation in front of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.  Hardly the same at all, dear chap: the Tomb is much smaller and could spirited away in the dead of night; but Buckingham Palace would require a much larger endeavor.  It would have been nice if the soldiers had bothered to synchronize their marches, then they would have had symmetry in their favor.

Had a wonderful first meeting, a good dinner, great conversation, tour of the West End (think: “the-a-tah”) then back aboard The Tube.

But, how am I to get to Gatwick airport in the morning?  Hmmm…

 

Well, at the BA desk at Victoria Station, I could take the train from Heathrow into Victoria Station, and then the train out to Gatwick.  Or, I could take the bus and save about an hour, and mucho denero.  And how would I get to the bus?  Ask at Heathrow.  Thank you ever so much.

Back at Heathrow, I found there is a DEDICATED bus from that airport to the one I wanted to leave from in the morning, they left every fifteen minutes, and cost but 12 and a half pounds (company accounting refers to other currencies as “local dollars” – world travelers that they are).  And, if I caught the 0630, or 0645 bus, I should make Gatwick in plenty of time.  Marvelous.  Could I show my tickets?  Well, no: they were in my room.  I’m flying BA?  Yes.  Then the ticket is paid for by BA.  Stupendous!  A potentially slight hiccup that could have been avoided by the travel department who booked the trip; but, this is so much more fun to discover “on the fly,” as it were.

 

Back to the room, lights out, eyes open.  Were the two alarm clocks I set necessary?  Would it have given me an extra hour of sleep to have spent the night at Gatwick, instead of saving the bus ride till morning?  Hah!  Wide awake in the plane coming over; wide awake in the hotel.  I just love travel.

 

Being predisposed to spending my entire life not wanting to be late at any cost (having entered the world somewhat later than planned), I found myself at the bus-stop shortly after 6 a.m., and there was already a line (sorry, “que”).  Yes, I did get the promised travel voucher, and so did not have to part with any of my newly acquired British pounds (nope, not part of the Euro-thing) – surely I would find a pocket full of that currency of inestimable value at my new home?  On the bus, and off we go.  Well, some of us, anyway; we left quite a bunch on the curb, having maxed out the bus’ cargo hold.  Being early has paid off, once again!

 

Checking into BA at Gatwick was predictably uncomplicated by silly little security issues; into the lounge with just oodles of time to kill – so much nicer than being the last one on the airplane, at any rate.  The 737-800 took off late (something about traffic over Europe on a Monday morning – can there be a “rush hour” with airplanes?).  I avoided the food, and settled down to read in a leather business class seat that must have had some sort of teflon spray added.  Great exercise to spend 3 hours scooching back into a seat.

 

Bucharest

 

Passport Control.  Obviously the officers that occupy Otopeni Airport’s first line of defense graduated first in their class, having mastered the fine art of appearing to be totally bored, and disinterested.  No doubt, they excelled in classes such as how to yawn and look disgusted at the same time.  Not to take anything away from the Saudis, who look like they’d like to spit on you but don’t think you’re worthy of their spittle (small comfort).  Thru the “Nothing to Declare” line (not sure if that should be said sotto voce, or not), and out into the hustle and bustle of terminal lobby to meet…well…I knew the airplane was early…but….

 

Eventually, the parties that were to meet me showed; but not before I heard my name paged over the PA system.  Visions of Clint Eastwood in the movie Firefox (“Your paapehs arrre not in ohda”) were about to be made manifest.  They shoot horses don’t they?  Not to worry, Timm and Bob were merely on time, and my wait was short one.

 

Do you want to buy a phone?  Question, or command?  Well, my new boss – the one who will approve all my efforts at addition and subtraction and currency conversion on expense reports – was right there, so, why not?  Why not, indeed?  Now, you must take note of the rather awkward fact that I have never even had a conversation on a mobile – not cell – phone previous to this.  Bob had scouted it out, told me which one was the one I wanted, told me where to perform the transaction, and what could be simpler?  Fine, I’ve had the delightful little status symbol for a week now, and I have learned how to program two numbers: the hotel and the little man behind the green curtain (Glenda’s number is unlisted).  I know it works because Timm has called me twice to see if I know how to push the big button right in the center and say something into the palm of my hand.  It also has internet capability (according to the Romanian owner’s manual), but I am sure I won’t live long enough to figure that out).

 

Athenée Palace Hotel.  That would be “Ah,” “the” (short “e”), “knee” – emphasis on the second syllable.  It wouldn’t surprise me to learn the etymology hails from the land of Homer; but, in fact, this country was well known to the Romans.  These people had to put up with Caesar and the Ottomans, and the Hungarians never had enough food on the table, I guess.  With time, all will be revealed.

 

We agonized over the rental car; me voting for the local, quaint, and picturesque; the others pulling rank and voting for the Ford Mondeo.  Yeah, a Ford (sorry, Sis).  Okay, it’s Avis, cause Hertz doesn’t have anything that big.  Fine.  Another decision taken out of my hands.  What am I, chopped chicken-liver?  Hardly: I get to negotiate rates….

 

Being the consummate haggler, I was able to drive the woman at the Avis desk to call her boss (good sign).  Her boss said she would get back to me (another good sign).  We agreed on the price (well within guidelines), and the car would be available tomorrow.  My last peaceful night.

 

Be afraid, be very afraid

 Now, driving in Bucharest is not all that different from driving in any big city.  For starters, their cars are built with the steering wheel on the same side as any other car you are likely to find in Mark Twain Country.  However, just because the steering wheel is on the left doesn’t mean they drive on the right.  Neither do those cute little numbers conveniently posted on the light poles have any bearing on the number your speedometer needle is pointing at.  And should you have any questions, there is a traffic cop standing on practically every corner to help you relax.  To say nothing of the “piatas” (think of piazza – or place), which may, or may not, resemble the wonderfully British “round-about.”  So, without any more clue about the strange buttons and switches inside the car, or the driving rules outside, I am turned loose on the populace.

 Tepes’ Travel Tips

When is it a “Laundry Emergency,” and when is it not?  This question has plagued world travelers since time immemorial, or since breakfast for others.  Avoid the entire subject completely by bothering to read the attractive booklet found in your nightstand; or baring that, by asking one of those cute young things at The Front.  However, if you are among those too callused to pay attention to the security briefing at the beginning of every flight, or never look for fire exits in hotels (or airplanes, for that matter), then be prepared for the dreaded “Laundry Emergency.”

 It IS a “Laundry Emergency” when you count all your socks and hankies after staying in a hotel for nearly a week, tally them up on the score sheet (don’t look at the prices: at these rates you are in the wrong business), and then stuff the whole kit and kabudle (I understand the “kit” part, but what in the world is a “kabudle”? – yes, extra points for originality) into a plastic bag that is fiendishly much too small – AND THEN discover that laundry is not processed on the weekends.

So, solving for x (one equation, the only known is the ass filling out the score sheet), we discover that we do, indeed, have enough socks to tide us over until TUESDAY (the laundry not being returned until Monday evening…he said hopefully).  We will find out exactly how close to the unspeakable “Laundry Emergency” we came upon entering our room this evening.

 Ah, and who is this “Tepes” fellow, you might ask?  Well, dad called me Vlad, and my friends called me the “Impaler.”

 La revedere,

Post #1

I have no illusions that this blog will result in anything that could be mistaken for the Pietá, but even Michelangelo’s first hammer strike on the journey to that masterpiece was probably equally non-descript.  But, you gotta start somewhere, right?

And so, in this wishy-washy age of “be responsible for nothing, but take offense at everything,” I offer the following for the thin-skinned:

All right, all right, I apologize. I’m really, really sorry. I apologize unreservedly. I offer a complete and utter retraction. The imputation was totally without basis in fact and was in no way fair comment and was motivated purely by malice, and I deeply regret any distress that my comments may have caused you or your family, and I hereby undertake not to repeat any such slander at any time in the future.  Spoken by Archie Leach (John Cleese) to Otto (Kevin Kline) in “A Fish Called Wanda.”

In other words, Dear Reader: read this blog at your peril (for some of you, that means, “I’d turn back if were you”).

For the less faint of heart, why start now?  ‘Cause it seems like everyone is blogging?  That by itself would seem reason enough not to.  No, it is out of frustration: there is so much crap impacting the air waves (ok: internet) that goes unanswered – or worse, triggers a response so ludicrous as to be pathetic – I just couldn’t sit on my keyboard and not join the fray.

There are a few of you (important to me, but statistically insignificant to the rest of the world – sorry) that I have tormented with my writings for years, and you will see some of the old stuff; I beg your forbearance – there is much more new to come.  The “old stuff” for the blithely uninitiated is mostly travelogues, the new stuff is mostly fiction, and scattered throughout will be my comments on current events (or, events that would have been non-events if not for “electronic media” – which begs the question of whether or not “media” can be virtual).

The blame for writing about my travels can be firmly placed on the shoulders of Mark Twain and his “Innocents Abroad.”  The travels themselves were all paid for by somebody else (which is the only way to go); but it means somebody else was throwing the darts at the map of the world, not me.  Keeping a diary was often the only way I had to cope with the “adventure”; inflicting my views on others came later.  For the more mathematically inclined, I have spent a significant amount of time in 24 countries (I don’t count airport layovers as actually being in-country; the shortest stay something around a week; the longest, 44 months).  I do not count the land of my birth as a foreign country, although in a few years, I might be able to.