viernes, 9 de septiembre de 2016

A Polish wedding (The Survival of the Fittest)

I’ve lost control of this blog thing.  Three blogs and I’m not really writing for any of them often enough. Now I should keep writing about my weekend in Minsk before it’s something I can just tell to my grandchildren, but that’ll have to wait a bit because something I had the honour to attend a Polish wedding. And no, it was not mine, I’m still available, ladies.

Me at the beginning: what am I doing here?
A bit more than a week ago, a friend told me she was going to a wedding and her plus one suddenly couldn’t go. We didn’t (and don’t, I guess) really know each other that much but going to a Polish wedding was one of the things in my to do list for this year so I couldn’t say no. It was in Jarocin, a 28,000 inhabitants town four hours from Warsaw, so I spent Friday night in Poznan, where I met a really kind CouchSurfing host, before meeting my friend and going to Jarocin.

The ceremony was quite simple: around 45 minutes in the church filled with some religious songs and speeches by the priest, speeches from which I could understand basically one word, “modlitwa”, and that’s just because it’s the name of a very cool song.

Once the ceremony was over and I could interact with people again, bazillions of one grosz (one cent of the local currency, the zloty) coins started falling from the sky. Ok, not from that high, people were throwing them; apparently in weddings you throw them to the happily married couple and they have to pick them all up, which often takes from three hours to seven weeks.

Very tasty stuff 
Immediately after that we went to some kind of celebration hall which smelled of cabbage (proof that we were in Poland) decorated with red and white balloons (more proof that we were in Poland) and the real party begun. The real Polish wedding. The main reason why I was there. I knew I was going to need quite a lot of energy so I ate a lot at first: huge tasty croquettes stuffed with different things, different meat products, some traditional Polish soups, etc.

This is how you fill a shot glass
Once I was ready for the real challenge, I turned from the food and faced it: the vodka. No bullshit here: there was no other alcohol. I mean, I saw a few bottles of beers at the entrance, but nobody touched them. I wondered if they were for the dogs or what. No wine, of course, just vodka. The plates were changed several times during the wedding, as well as the bottles of vodka. The shot glasses, however, were our faithful companions throughout the whole evening.

Who needs Bruce Springsteen when you have Calypso?
After a few shots, I felt ready to face the other real challenge: the music. Music of questionable quality, if I may add. Three guys with cheap keyboards and a saxophone delighted our ears with a selection of Polish music to which I’m sure most people would be allergic in different circumstances. Not gonna lie, I danced as much as anyone else and it was great fun, as I had the luck of meeting a few people there who made me feel extremely comfortable the whole time.

I have also realized that, when it comes to weddings, it’s not that Poles can drink like crazy without getting drunk, but rather that they know how to drink in a very smart way. What happened at this wedding was that for 20-30 minutes there would be some background music while people talked, drank and ate, and then the next 30 minutes would be of live music with everyone dancing around. This sequence would go on for eleven or twelve hours. The good thing is that if you dind’t stay on your chair during dancing time, it was just imposible for the alcohol to get to your head. I won’t say how much I drank (although I’m quite sure it was a personal record), but I was absolutely sober all the time.

Don't ask. Please. Don't ask.
To make things better, some dancing games were played. I don’t really know how to explain them, but when I saw some people being chosen for who knows what, I sneaked out for a couple of minutes. When I came back, I saw things that can’t be unseen. Oh, and I should also mention that, to remind us that we were in Poland, the waiters served more cabbage… at 1.40 am.

The celebration finished at some point between 4.30 and 5am and I danced until the very end; my obviously sweaty hair in many photos is the best reminder. After that, we all went to sleep hoping that the next day we would still be human beings. I can’t really say I was, but it was totally worth it. An extremely fun experience. Congratulations to the husband and the wife!

Thanks to everyone for making it a perfect evening

viernes, 26 de agosto de 2016

Minsk (I): a not so pleasant bus trip

I’ve liked Eastern Europe for quite a while now and, as I’m living in Warsaw, I’m trying to explore it a bit further by going to some not so typical destinations. One of the places in my bucket list was Minsk, and that’s where I went the 19th of August.

Getting the visa done was relatively straightforward, although it’s a totally overpriced one (I’m including this information for whoever is interested). First of all, a local friend sent me an invitation to go (20 or 25 euro, depending on how fast you want it to arrive). After that, I had to go to the Belarusian embassy in Warsaw with three or four documents, all of them quite easy to get. Finally, I went to the embassy again one week later to get my visa (which is 60 more euro, so the total price is 80 or 85).

The bus even had these internet/movie/music screen thingies
I must admit that, although I had a good time in Minsk, the bus trip was definitely one of the highlights. First of all, the price: buying the ticket in Belarusian rubles was almost half price as doing it in euro or in zloty (big thanks to my Belarusian friends for pointing that out). Anyway, I took the bus at 10am in Warsaw and I was relatively surprised to see there was free Wi-Fi, a plug per seat to charge whatever devide you were carrying and a free tea and coffee machine. I was thinking wow, quite nice, is there anything this bus doesn’t have? Oh wait, no seatbelts. Yep, it makes sense, who needs a seatbelt when you have free internet. I’m going to leave it here because otherwise I’ll get so sarcastic I’ll have a sour taste in my mouth.

I was having a pleasant trip, sitting in the back of the bus, not bothered by anyone, when suddenly the bus stopped in the middle of nowhere. I didn’t pay too much attention at first, but after a few minutes it was obvious something was wrong. Two hours later the driver fixed whatever it was that wasn’t working and continued its way until the border, where another little surprise was waiting for us, or rather for me. Apparently the guy in my passport photo is someone else with a slightly thicker beard and slightly shorter hair, so the guy who worked there politely (fortunately no sarcasm here) asked me a few questions about my name, the duration of my stay, who I was going to stay with and so on.

Green green Belarus from the bus

Two hours or so after getting to the border, they let us go and I finally entered Belarus. We changed bus right after that, as ours was still not working that well. The new one had seatbelts, how luxurious. The rest of the trip went on placidly; two weird-looking guys with a bottle of something that didn’t look exactly like milk sat next to me but they were totally ok. I finally arrived at Minsk at 1am, more than four hours later than expected, but luckily my friend lives close enough to the station so she was there waiting for me. We fell asleep immediately after arriving at her flat: a weekend of very long walks in green Minsk was waiting.

jueves, 14 de julio de 2016

A weekend in Kiev

If there’s something I’ve realized since I came to Warsaw in January it’s that Poland is not Eastern Europe. It’s not Western Europe either, actually, but rather something in the middle. I guess there are different reasons for that, but one of them is definitely being part of the European Union, which has made it relatively easy for some foreigners to come to Poland. That is obviously more noticeable in the capital, where half of the friends and acquaintances I’ve made are not Polish. Sure, I’m not Polish so it’s easier for me to hang out with other expats, but that wouldn’t happen in other countries.

When I say other countries, I mean basically non-EU countries like Moldova and Ukraine, two countries I have visited recently which have made me see the real Eastern Europe. I already wrote about Moldova a couple of months ago and now I’ll do the same with my weekend in Kiev.

Fast & Furious: Ukranian version
I arrived with Jesús, one of my colleagues, on a Friday evening. Due to the heavy rain, I guess, we had to stay in the plane for another hour once it had landed, and after that we needed some time to get some help from an Ukranian guy to call a taxi. As you may imagine, taking a taxi there is a big mistake: I asked one guy and he told me the price was 850 grivnas, while the price we finally paid for the taxi we called was 270 (at this point one euro is almost thirty grivnas).

Maidan
The city made an impression on me since I started approaching it. Huge grey working class apartment blocks sprouted from the ground, menacingly guarding the lower buildings, while an upside-down red car in the middle of the road made us wonder how well people drive in Kiev.

We arrived at Javi’s place rather late and he and another colleague of mine were waiting for us. We decided to take it easy that evening and we just had a few pizzas and watched a random Eurocup match.

Countless bracelets can be found at Maidan
The next day, after a long and nice sleep, we went for a long, nice walk. Until it started to rain quite heavily, that is. Before that, we went to Maidan (Independence Square) and walked through parks unnamed in my mind. Maidan is already an impressive place in itself, but when you hear what happened there a couple of years ago and you see the photographs and the flowers you can’t help becoming very solemn. I don’t think this is the place to discuss those events so I’ll leave it here.

Year 2500: the human race has been extinct for 200 years...
Kiev is a very green city and I love that. A few minutes after leaving Maidan, there was a point where I could see big buildings very far away, separated from me by a sea of trees. The whole thing seemed to be taken from a post-apocaliptic movie, like one of these scenes where you can see the city far away, behind the overgrown trees.

The Motherland Monument watches over Kiev
It started to rain when we were arriving at Lavra, so we decided to continue walking and go to the Motherland Monument and the WW2 Museum first. I strongly recommend the museum, although many things there will make you wonder how can we get to the point where we lose our soul. I swear I was terrified when I saw the bone crusher, a machine that transformed the bones of dead people into fertilizer.

Lavra
After that we went to Lavra, a place with several religious buildings which we didn’t have much time to enjoy. I’ll probably go there again next time I go to Kiev, as the place was very interesting. I was surprised by the many young priests I saw, many of them in their early thirties.

We took the underground to go back to Javi’s place. The remarkable part is that we went to the deepest metro station in the world, Arsenalna: 105,5 metres deep. Not bad, huh? Going down took actually more (I think) than the trip itself.
Lavra

Then came the obvious things: dinner, chilling a bit, watching another Eurocup match, same old. But the day wasn’t over: we couldn’t leave Kiev before a good party. Well, actually I could, as I stayed in with Javi. The rest of them went to a club, joined by two Italians and two locals. According to my friends' report, they contemplated in amazement how, for the first time, there were many more girls than guys in the club. And excuse me for discussing mundane matters of the flesh, but most of them were extremely attractive. Unfortunately, many of the guys there looked as if they were looking for an excuse to break your face and they certainly seemed to have the muscular power to do it. Long story short, they behaved and didn’t use their Spanish charm.

The next day we took it very easy and, guided by a local girl we met, quickly saw a few orthodox churches and a nice park. Before, we saw how a guy in a minion costume chased a pretty girl and kissed her hand fifty-seven times before she could get rid of him. Note to self: buy a minion costume before the next trip to Kiev. I’d write more about my impressions of the churches and the park but I’m writing this two months after the trip so my memories are quite blurry, plus I think I was too tired that day to pay attention to my surroundings anyway.

All in all, it’s a city I really loved and I’ll definitely go back again, because I realise there’s so much I didn’t see.

Here are some more photos from the trip.
First view of Kiev

Arsenalna: the deepest metro station in the world

Jesús and me trying to steal the spotlight from a newly married couple

Maidan is a really impressive place

Orthodox church

Dnieper

When you buy metro tickets, you get these


martes, 19 de abril de 2016

Moldova (III): Orheiul Vechi and last adventures

Once we had seen Chisinau and Transnistria we felt like breathing some fresh air, so we decided to go to Orheiul Vechi (Old Orhei), an old historical complex 60 km from Chisinau. Jorge, a Spanish guy who was in the hostel, decided to join us.

Many houses in Ivancea were like that
Javi called the taxi driver who took him to town they day he arrived and they negotiated a price to go there. Why a taxi and not a bus? Because we are so hip that we wanted to stop at a random village and see rural Moldova. We stopped at a village called, I think, Ivancea, which had around 500 inhabitants according to the taxi driver.

One of the many wells we saw
Even though I know there are much worse places in the world, walking around Ivancea was a humbling experience that made me realize once again how lucky I am and how easy my life is. There was hardly any pavement, and the little that could be seen was in an awful state. Most of the paths were really muddy.

Even the most random villages have nice Orthodox churches
I don’t know this, but I have doubts that there was actually running water there because there were a lot of wells which had very transparent water. Yes, the water was good, I tried it and I’m still alive, my skin is not green and I don’t have three eyes. So my bet is that the water was good. Another option is that they only use the wells when they have a problem with running water; it’s perfectly possible and I don’t really know what’s the answer.

The last surprising thing about Ivancea is its Orthodox church. The view of a village in which most of the houses looked like they could fall down at any moment but the church is so (relatively) magnificent was certainly interesting. By the way, I have the feeling most Orthodox churches I’ve seen are made of cardboard, and that one wasn’t an exception.

The chapel's walls were surprising
As for Orheiul Vechi, there was not a lot to it, but the landscapes were nice and I always enjoy a walk in the countryside. It’s a dead place in winter, so dead the woman from the information office didn’t even have a couple of the most common banknotes to help us change money. We didn’t really see any archaeological remains, but the landscape was very nice: a valley surrounded by a U-shaped river and, right behind it, some hills, on which we walked. We also entered a little underground chapel which a very old couple had decorated very nicely. The chapel had another exit, which led to a narrow ledge and then to a precipice. Yes, the mandatory pictures were taken there.



Javi and me next to the precipice
I don't often take selfies but admit it, this one is cool
The photo doesn't say much, but trust me, this was good
After a nice walk, we ended up in a village called Trebujeni, which is a funny name there’s a village not that far from my hometown called Trebujena. There was a restaurant which only opens in summer, so Javi worked his Russian magic to convince the old woman who was there to work for the three of us. She told us she’d need an hour, which was ok because we didn’t really have any other choice if we wanted to eat hot food. After a little more than an hour, she came to our table with food for approximately four hundred and seventy-one people. Man, it was good. An orgasmic stew, tomatoes, a weird omelette thingy, some kind of fried bread with goat cheese and I don’t even remember what else, but the thing is that we couldn’t finish everything. We tried our best; it was just impolite to not finish the food this woman had cooked for us, but we just couldn’t. She asked for such a ridiculously small amount of money that we gave her a bit more; after all, the difference was bigger for her than for us (here I am, possibly sounding snobbish again).

Abandoned hotel in the main street
After eating, we took a marshrutka back, relaxed, and exchanged out blood for beer in the evening in the company of Alina and a very nice friend of hers, Ana. This proved not to be the best of ideas, as the next day there was a disco party inside our heads. I got better early enough but Javi was a corpse until lunchtime. We went for a couple of short walks to regain consciousness and then Javi, Jorge, Alina, Ana and Aluna, a lovely local we met in the morning, and me went to a nice bar where a guy was delighting everyone’s ears with the way he played jazz with his guitar.

One last pointless story: I bought a Transnistria postcard as a souvenir and, as I was walking back to the hostel with a happy grin on my face, the wind decided to laugh at me and blew the postcard away. It danced away, teasing me in slow motion, until it fell right in the tiny gap between a wall and a bunch of stones used to pave the streets. No way to get it back.

I saw this at the airport: not stereotypical at all
I left at around 2pm the next day, after buying a bottle of Moldovan wine (try any of them if you have the chance) at the airport. It was an amazing trip, I met people I want to keep in touch with and I definitely recommend you to go to Moldova if you want to do something different during your holidays.

jueves, 7 de abril de 2016

Moldova (II): a day in Transnistria

Market in Chisinau
After an interesting first day in Chisinau, we decided it was time to go to Transnistria. Alina, who is originally from there, had decided to come as well, so she, Javi and me met in the morning and went together to the bus station. We stopped at a market first and bought some food. I was surprised by the amount of people who sold cookies; not cookies in plastic bags, but cookies in open boxes where you could take as many as you wanted and just weigh them. The reason why I’m mentioning this insignificant detail is because the cookies were extremely good, so if you go to Chisinau, you know what to do when you’re at a market. Or well, maybe my mental obesity is getting out of control.

Isn't this brilliant?
The bus was certainly a peculiar one. It had the cheesiest combination of curtains and seat covers I have ever seen: the curtains were pink with Arabic-ish motifs and the bright yellow seat covers depicted a guy (Mexican? Brazilian?) at the beach. I can imagine an out of date designer with a palm tree shirt and sunglasses saying “I like to call this sandy harem, baby”.

Transnistria is officially part of Moldova, however it actually functions like an independent country, with its own government, currency and so on. Therefore, we had to stop at the border, get out of the bus, show our passports and get a piece of paper telling us we had to leave the country a few hours later.

Left: Russian flag colours. Right: Transnistrian flag colours
According to what I’ve heard, Transnistria wants to be Russian, and that became apparent quite soon. There were Russian soldiers on the border and we even saw a structure with one half painted with the colours of the Russian flag and the other half painted with the colours of the Transnistrian one. The Transnistrian flag has the old communist symbols, by the way.

Tiraspol, the capital of Transnistria, looked relatively similar to Chisinau, if only slightly better kept. Prices were definitely higher, too. Javi told me it receives money from Russia, which makes sense. The main thing about Tiraspol was the tank (or tanks?) we saw (no, not working) and a few statues, like the one from Lenin. Yes: hammer and sickle, Lenin statues, it definitely felt a bit like being in the USSR. Except I’m being quite stupid here because I never was there, but please do allow me the stupidity.
Javi and me being silly tourists and loving Tiraspol

Our new toy

Lenin statue

Javi bought a Transnistrian flag
At some point, we went to a supermarket and then the Spiral of Doom (ok, it wasn't that bad) started. First, Javi tried to get some cash and realized his card was missing. Then I checked my wallet to get some cash for him and realized my card was missing as well. A couple of minutes later, we came to the conclusion that, even if we had arrived on different days, we had lost our cards the same way. When we took a taxi from the airport, we both needed to take some local cash; we had both already talked to the taxi driver first so we took the cash in a hurry and forgot the card there. I know, it sounds like a joke. But it wasn’t. Fortunately, we were able to block the cards before anything else happened to them. Immediately after that, we forgot our cookies, a few bananas and a bottle of water in a locker in the supermarket. It’s nothing but, after the stress from the card thing, it was quite annoying, and my inner mental fatty mourned the cookies' loss for a couple of hours.

We went to the stadium of FC Sheriff Tiraspol, the local football (yes, soccer) team. At some point, we were walking down a street and I realized something. On my right I could see the brand new stadium, along with a Sheriff hypermarket and a Sheriff gas station. All of them looked new and wealthy. On my left, the real world. The contrast was striking and very sad.
Transnistria and Russia, together to progress
Finally, we went to Bender, a town which got its share of misery in the 1992 Civil War that happened in Transnistria. I didn’t see anything particularly different there and anyway we didn’t have time, because we headed directly to the bus station. There we had what I called a soviet dog, which is a hot dog in which the sausage had been cut by half, although its length was the same. I was too hungry to care. After that, the Spiral of Doom continued: we almost lost our marshrutka (something like a minibus) and half of my hot chocolate decided to do some sightseeing in Javi’s trousers.

That was the end of the day's adventures. We went back, had dinner with Alina and bought some food for the next day. Our plan was to go to Orheiul Vechi, a historical and archaeological complex 60 km from Chisinau, as well as to some random village on the way there to have a glimpse of rural Moldova.


sábado, 2 de abril de 2016

Moldova (I): first impressions

This is not a tale of a thousand crazy adventures, but a relatively thorough account of the things that I saw and thought in my trip to Moldova. If you’re expecting an action-packed best-seller kind of article, stop reading. In fact, if you don’t know me personally, you may fall asleep three lines later. You have been warned.

Two and a half months ago, I would have never considered going to Moldova. I mean, why Moldova? It’s small and there’s not anything especially beautiful to see, is there? But when my good friend Javi suggested me to go there in Easter, I didn’t hesitate. We became good friends last year; now he’s working in Ukraine, I’m working in Poland and we really wanted to travel together and meet again. Also, I have always travelled inside my rich countries bubble and I wanted to get out of it, while he has experienced with more unusual trips and he knows how to plan them.

Speaking of my rich countries bubble, when I write about Moldova I may use adjectives such as, let’s say, “poor”. First of all, just in case, I am aware that I may sound snobbish at times, but I don’t mean to be offensive. It’s just my very own point of view taken from my very own personal experiences; if my experiences had been different, my point of view would be different as well. Actually please read this short text I wrote as an introduction for this blog, where I apologize again and again about the possible snobbish feel my words may have.

One of the many trolleybuses I saw
Back to the trip: Javi went to Chisinau, the capital, on the 23rd of March, while I arrived one day later. It was a bit colder than in Poland and I hurriedly got some lei, the local currency, before taking a taxi to the hostel. The taxi driver was nice and we spoke in a mixture of Russian, of which I know ten words or so; Italian, which I can understand-ish and French, which I more or less speak. Fun start.

View from the hostel
Once we were in town, I felt as if I had gone back in time. The grey sky certainly suited the post-communist atmosphere. I’ve never seen so many wires when looking up: Chisinau is full of trolleybuses. I got down from the taxi, paid the equivalent of five euro (later I would find out that a taxi to the airport can be even cheaper) and hugged Javi as I had a look at the hostel. Lev Tolstoi street is next to Stefan cel Mare, the main street, and yet it rather looked like the working class suburb of a forgotten town.

The hostel was small and clean and staff was very nice. After taking a short nap (what can I say, we’re Spanish) we went for a walk and pretty much everything there is to see in town in one hour. We basically walked along Stefan cel Mare and saw the Parliament, the Presidential House and a few other similar buildings.

Political protest 

Nothing was particularly beautiful. Actually, nothing was beautiful, but it was so different that it was really interesting. I was surprised by the bad state of the pavement: if that was the main street, how would the suburbs look? We were actually planning to check that out a couple of days later, but our hangover didn’t let us. Oh well.  The lack of rubbish bins was surprising also, and quite annoying as well. Next to some Government building there were a few tents: apparently there had been some political protests going on for a while. Finally, while we were walking around there was a young girl of about eight who asked us for money. Javi speaks very decent Russian so he could understand her, although what she wanted was pretty obvious. It was the only time such thing happened to us during the trip, but it made quite an impression on me.

Before meeting me, Javi had randomly met a local girl at a park. They had talked for quite a while and they had agreed to meet later, once I was in town. Alina turned out to be a delightful young lady who met us in the evening as well and took us to an alternative bar where we witnessed a rather unusual show. While a guitar and a keyboard were used to create a pinkfloydesque atmosphere, a young man, friend of Alina, recited poetry in Romanian for about two hours, with a short break at some point. Javi and me didn’t understand a word of it (no, wait, we did understand “football”, “television” and “porn”), but the whole thing was original and the cup of Moldovan wine we drank was really good, so I’m not complaining.

After that, we had dinner in a bar with Alina, Terente (the psychedelic poet) and two of his friends, who paid for another bottle of very nice wine. I couldn’t help but realize how one of them was sporting what I’d call the classical soviet hairstyle. I don’t mean to make fun of it, but it’s really funny how trends change and how something that is forbidden by non-written laws in some countries is very common in others.

Stefan cel Mare at night: the pavement surprised me
We went back to the hostel at approximately 1am, after convincing Alina to come to Transnistria with us the following morning. Transistria is a country de facto, but not de iure, meaning it’s not officially a country by international standards, but it does function as one, with its own government, currency and so on. It looked interesting, and it certainly was, although you’ll have to wait a bit to read about it.

jueves, 31 de marzo de 2016

Introduction

I wasn’t planning on starting another blog. I already have one about music in which I rant about bands nobody really cares about and I also write for a quite cool culture blog. However, when talking about my trip to Moldova, a friend told me I should write about it.

If it was the standard weekend in Paris I wouldn’t even consider it, to be honest. However, Moldova is a rather unusual destination, so it may actually be interesting to give it a go. I don’t even know if I’ll keep it or delete it after two days, but who knows. If I do keep it, I probably won’t really write very often, because I’ll only write about trips which are not that common and common trips that go uncommon. I think it will be a bit of a travelling diary, with the things I see, the impression I get from them and whatever stories happen to me and my travelling companions (if they let me write about them). This doesn't mean it's going to be full of crazy stories, non-stop action and touching drama. You probably won't find a lot of those. Actually this is rather a blog for my friends, who have asked me quite a lot about this trip, although feel free to read as much as you want.

There’s one last thing you should keep in mind. I’ll probably write about the way I see the things I’ve had the chance to experience in my trips. Please remember that I come from Spain, I have always had an easy life and, perhaps Moldova aside, I have never been out of my comfortable rich kid bubble. I do not want to offend anyone with my point of view, which is after all an opinion and not a fact. I'm aware that if I use the word "poor" for Moldova, it's because I have always travelled in rich countries, and perhaps if I had been to, let's say, third world countries, my opinion would be different. Basically, it's a matter of perspective. Please do excuse my mistakes as well, since I’m not a native English speaker.


I think that’s more or less all. I hope you enjoy these new rants of mine! Let me finish this post with some wise words Bilbo Baggins sang when he left his home early on in the Fellowship of the Ring book.


The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it noins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.




My father took this photo in Ireland ten years ago. What a beautiful place!