Outside the bus windows, signs were all in Cyrillic, reminding us of our month in Russia. But this was a whole different place, where the languages are similar across borders but for some reason, only Serbia uses the Cyrillic alphabet. Belgrade was all about meeting people, sometimes in unexpected places. We arrived in the evening, looking forward to a week of some sightseeing, good food and a whole lot of down time.
We dropped off our bags and headed to a cute little bar for our very first Couchsurfing event, which was the weekly Belgrade CS get-together. There were about 25 people crammed into the upstairs section of the bar, and we ended up talking with two Serbian guys who gave us the rundown on what to see in and around Belgrade.
One of the first things we did was to check out a popular lesbian party near our apartment. We found it behind some type of office building and were ushered in by the slightly friendly butch bouncer. It was completely empty, and within a few minutes of us walking in the DJ started playing “Gangnam Style”, which probably was a coincidence… Or wasn’t. We stood around the table we were ushered to and looked around the sad, empty place until two women walked in and sat in a dark corner drinking and chain-smoking like they were exchanging state secrets. People eventually started trickling in, and one or two people got up on the stage and played around on the stripper pole for a bit before shyly running back to their group of friends. All-in-all it was probably one of the most boring lesbian bars we’ve come across on our travels and there wasn’t any eye-candy, so we called it a night and went home to watch movies instead.
Sightseeing is all fun and good, but we were craving good food, after having had the same sort of food (meatballs, meatballs and more meatballs) for the past few weeks. We had read online that Belgrade was a foodie paradise in the Balkans and we were ecstatic. Unfortunately, this is a lie. I guess if you had to pick a place with the best food in the region, it might be Belgrade just because it’s a big city and there are so many offerings, but it isn’t a city I would go out of my way to visit for the food. At all.
We had our foodie friend with us from New York, and we were missing out on some serious eating in Croatia. With Zagreb being disappointing food-wise and the Plitvice Lakes area offerings being not that much better, the three of us made our way to the coastal town of Split for fresh seafood. This being the Dalmatian coast, we arrived in the city and immediately spotted a Japanese tour group cross the street in front of us and cruise ships docked in the distance. Palm trees lined the main promenade, and people sat outside sipping coffees and cocktails. How did we end up in Miami?
Being the hungry hippos that we are, we dropped off our bags at the apartment and immediately made our way to our first traditional Croatian tavern experience at Konoba Hvaranin. We’ve long stopped trusting any reviews on Tripadvisor, and instead found a review on Foodie International of a konoba recommended by locals so we put our faith in this girl. We were glad we did. After taking sufficient food porn photos, we dug into fresh pasta with clams, grilled shrimp and grilled baby squid with ink sacs inside.
After dinner, we took a walk around the Old Town to digest and more importantly, to have a nightcap. Split used to be Emperor Diocletian’s summer palace. I don’t know anything about him, except that he was the only Roman Emperor to retire and he hated Christians. We walked through the narrow, maze-like streets and finally found Ghetto Club, which was the only gay-friendly bar in Split I was able to find on the internet. Unlike what you would probably imagine from the unfortunate name, it’s a nice, spacious place. We had the whole place to ourselves, but I can imagine this place must be pretty busy in the summer months.
If it weren’t for the crazy night we had last night, Zagreb would’ve been just another unmemorable city on our travels. But first, how we got there.
We had planned to meet our friend Ching-I from New York in Croatia, and decided that Zagreb (the capital of Croatia) would be the most convenient place for her to fly into to start exploring the rest of this weirdly-shaped country. After a day of sightseeing around Zagreb, the three of us quickly realized that the city itself really wasn’t anything special. There weren’t any really notable landmarks or tasty food to distract us from the blandness of the city.
Since we spent the weekend in Zagreb, we decided to check out the only “queer-friendly” bar (that wasn’t a club) I could find on the internet. We had some time to kill so we watched “Gravity” in IMAX for a mere $9 (not as cheap as Tallinn, though) and then walked back to the bar.
Café Vimpi is a cozy bilevel bar/café with a narrow spiral staircase that is a deathtrap for drunk people. But there weren’t any accidents that night, and the three of us settled around a small table and were served by the friendly lesbian bartender. Groups of queer people started trickling in, but we’re shy and we kept to ourselves. After a round of 0.5L Radlers, we looked around and ordered Tomislav beers, what the locals seemed to be drinking.
With our Schengen visa quickly approaching its deadline, we had to cut our foray into France short and make a quick exit into the Balkans via northern Italy. Milan happened to be a convenient stop on our way to Croatia, so we spent a few days in one of the fashion capitals of the world.
Frankly, Milan wasn’t my kind of city. Unlike the other tourists there, we weren’t there to stock up on name brand clothing and accessories. So we did what we do best: eat. We stuffed our faces with pizza, pasta, gelato and whatever else we could get our grubby hands on before being exiled to the Balkans for three months.
Snacks like the panzarotti and gelato were delicious, but we thought the restaurants generally sucked and were ridiculously expensive, so we opted to cook at our apartment. Always the reliable one to sniff out food, N found a fresh pasta shop near the apartment where we bought ravioli stuffed with different kinds of fillings. We had that with a cut of beef a neighborhood butcher recommended.
People say there is nothing like the French countryside and it’s true. After extensive searching on the French WWOOFing site, we found an opportunity with an organic farmer in a tiny village called Saint-Menoux. For two weeks, we learned French and Patois slang, drank exorbitant amounts of wine to stay warm at night, ate good organic food made by our farmer (a former chef at Michelin-starred restaurants) with the vegetables from his garden, had discussions in French and English late into the night, drove around the neighboring farms and chateaus in a beat-up Kia minivan and rocked out to Michael Jackson and Bryan Adams. Oh, and we did some work.
N and I left gay Paris and carpooled in a spacious Renault to the nearest town of Moulins to meet the farmer we would be spending two weeks with. As I sat there looking out of the window, Sancerre blew by us, its perfect rows of vineyards stretching on and on. I realized why people wax poetic about the countryside of this vast country. Old stone barns and farmhouses dotted the landscape, the red tiled roofs complementing the rolling green hills. Sheep grazed while the white cattle lay on the grass, sunning themselves. This wasn’t Middle America. This was heaven.
Because the farmer spoke mostly French, our email communications had been brief. We had little idea of what to expect besides the fact that he was gay-friendly and had a spare room for us in his house, so we were more than a little relieved when we met our farmer, Hubert-Brice, who ended up being a perfect gentleman and a progressive at heart. We had read horror stories of WWOOFing experiences, where the farmers exploited the workers, worked them all day, verbally abused them… Fortunately for us, it was clear that Hubert joined WWOOFing more for the cultural exchange than anything else. He found it amusing and surreal that a couple of New Yorkers found themselves in the middle of France to learn about organic farming.
“Do you speak English?”, I asked him in French. “Yes, a little.”, he responded in French, with the shrug that all French people do to indicate, Eh, what can you do? Great. Ever since I graduated college, my French had gone to shit and I stood there trying to figure out how to say, “Well, you’re going to have to learn how to speak because I sure as hell can’t communicate with you in mostly French.” Instead, I said, “We can communicate using both French and English.” Or at least that’s what I think I said. Communication ended up being a little difficult at times, but Hubert was extremely patient with my broken French and so we managed over the course of two weeks.
Now for the farming bit. Or the little bit of farming that we did. Hubert was kind and let us lazy bums sleep in while he woke up every morning around 7:00 (and on Saturdays, he was out of the door by 5:00 to go to market). We were ready to work by 10:00, at which point we were given small tasks to do, like harvesting string beans (they grow very fast so we did this a lot), picking tomatoes, weeding (because Hubert’s farm is 100% pesticide free, weeding is a big part of keeping the plants healthy), pulling up old plants to get the plot ready for next spring, and transplanting leeks.
My only brush with Belgium prior to visiting was the chicken waterzooi my mother would make for dinner sometimes. In the ‘80s, my uncle was an editor for a Japanese newspaper and was stationed in Brussels for a while, and my cool cousins grew up speaking French and, I assume, eating lots of quality chocolate. The waterzooi recipe came from a Belgian friend of my aunt’s, and was something she brought with her when the family was transferred back to Tokyo. Its light cream broth with a hint of tanginess from the lemon always reminds me of home.
With four days to spend in Brussels, we scoured Couchsurfing for the perfect host to spend that time with. We found it in the form of a tall, stylin’, chain-smoking Belgian named Flex who quit his cushy fulltime job to work for himself and to enjoy a more flexible schedule. Flex lives in a beautiful apartment in the hip neighborhood of Saint Gilles, which reminded us of Park Slope (Brooklyn), but with a lot of cool Art Deco architecture and a much more happening scene during the work week.
The first night in the city, Flex took us to an outdoor market where we bought freshly-made Moroccan wraps and a bottle of cava to share on the steps of the Saint Gilles Town Hall. It was a Monday night and people were packed into the square eating and drinking late into the night as if they didn’t have work the next day. We finished the night with Belgian beers at a nearby bar, Moeder Lambic.
I caught a glimpse of one of my cousins here, a beer lover (well, alcohol lover) who would’ve undoubtedly sat at one of the wooden tables savoring the bar’s offerings. When we left the bar after midnight, there were still a good number of Belgians there. Seriously, Europeans know how to have a good time.
Besides their beer, Belgians take chocolate very, very seriously. Flex pointed us in the direction of the Grand Sablon neighborhood where all of the big chocolatiers are clustered. We realized that we’ve already had most of these chocolates in Tokyo or New York: Wittamer, Neuhaus, Pierre Marcolini, Godiva… But we also realized that they were much cheaper in Belgium so we sat down at Wittamer for dessert and I caught a glimpse of my aunt walking through the neighborhood with her sons in tow.
“Berlin combines the culture of New York, the traffic system of Tokyo, the nature of Seattle, and the historical treasures of, well, Berlin.” – Hiroshi Motomura
If I wanted to move from my beloved New York City to someplace better, I would find myself on a one-way flight to Berlin. There, I said it. As a New Yorker, I like to compare big cities with my own, especially if I get to conclude that, “Yes, _____ is great but at the end of the day, there’s nothing like New York.” And I’ll sit there at an airy Paris café/packed biergarten in Munich/cool restaurant in St. Petersburg, staring glassy-eyed as I reminisce about my time in the Big Apple. But on our visit to Berlin, New York tasted almost bland by comparison, and for the first time since leaving home, I felt at home again.
Unlike many conventional travelers who research and book vacations months in advance (at work) and have the time to do the research for their destinations (at work), we have been planning as we go. But there are more than a few destinations on our loose itinerary we’ve been meaning to go to, and Berlin was one such city. Being uneducated and too lazy to look it up, I honestly didn’t know what to expect.
Berlin is not a wealthy city by any means, and it is understandable based on the fact that it was the victim of a tug-of-war between the Soviets and the other Allied Powers for 45 years after being badly demolished by the end of World War II. Because of this, the city is a good mix of all kinds of people, which lends to the unique cultural atmosphere.
What is there to do in Berlin? Well, just about anything your little heart desires. Using our rental apartment in trendy Kreuzburg (what Williamsburg in Brooklyn wishes it could be) as our base, we spent a week playing, eating (Vietnamese food), getting a haircut in a Japanese salon and educating ourselves in museums (the more educational part coming up in the next post).
To be perfectly honest, Germany wasn’t really a country that interested us. It was just an obstacle in between Eastern Europe and the more desirable countries lying along the western coast… And a rather large obstacle at that. Covering more than 137,846 square miles (357,021 km²), Germany is massive. As we traveled through Russia and Eastern Europe, travelers we met along the way raved about Germany. “Really???” we would ask. But they convinced us, and we changed our original plans to take the quickest route through Germany and decided instead to spend a little more than three weeks making our way around the country.
We spent our first night in Munich in a gorgeous apartment of a Couchsurfing host and woke up the next morning to breakfast on her balcony including her homemade hummus and jam. We made plans to meet up later that night and made our way to our Airbnb apartment. As we walked through the city with our big packs, I started to notice the German smile. The response to every brief moment of eye contact resulted in a smile. Not one of those grim New York smiles where only your lips twitch slightly as you eye the stranger suspiciously, but a full-on, warm, eye-twinkling one. I like you already, Munich.
We dropped off our bags at the apartment and went out to the farmer’s market we had passed through on the way there. It was in a small square, where vendors were selling their products from their trucks. We’ve been noticing that European fruit and produce look and taste better than in the U.S., and the stuff at the market looked divine. To make things even sweeter, most of the things there were organic (or “bio”, as they call it here), although we’ve been eating non-organic for the most part since the E.U. has higher food safety regulations than the U.S. (pesticide use and genetically-modified food bans to name just two). We bought lovely food and had a light lunch in preparation for the biergarten dinner we had planned that night.
We arrived in Krakow sore and sleep-deprived after a 14-hour overnight bus ride from Vilnius, Lithuania on Ecolines. Why so tired? Imagine being confined to one seat on a Greyhound bus for 14 hours, during which the man behind you sounds like his phlegmy lungs are trying to eject themselves from his body, directly onto the back of your head. When the bus stops every once in a while, he and his son run off of the bus to chain-smoke furiously until the bus leaves again. During the night, you are abruptly disrupted from your sleep to find the man’s face inches from yours, wedged between the seats of your row, a la Jack Nicholson in “The Shining”.
Thankfully, he wasn’t being creepy (or homicidal) and was just getting something from the bag resting on the floor between his legs. But still. We sleepwalked to our hostel, showered and wasted the rest of our precious day in Krakow by passing out for the rest of the afternoon in our private room. So much for getting some rest on a night bus.
Krakow, a city of cheap booze, severe hipster haircuts and most of all, a terrible wartime history. We spent the first half of our day getting N’s haircut at a hipster place right in the Old Town. Everyone was being given asymmetrical haircuts which looked as if the stylist forgot to cut the other half of their clients’ hair and left it at that. We convinced N’s stylist to NOT cut two upside down triangles into the back of her hair, and we were off to explore Krakow.
We walked through the Old Town and snuck into St. Mary’s Cathedral through the “prayer only” section because we didn’t want to pay to get in. We snuck a few photos of this colorful, marvelous cathedral as we sat in the pews. After walking all over town in the heat, we took a breather (and lunch) at a restaurant in the Jewish district of Kazimierz. As much as I like meat and potatoes, it was nice to have something a little more vegetable-based and refreshing for once.
We stumbled off of the train gasping for fresh air sans body odor of unshowered military boys and found ourselves in our first big city in Russia: Irkutsk. I hadn’t expected such a sprawling city in the middle of Siberia, and we were excited to see what it had to offer. We had booked a room at the slightly pricier Angara Hotel for the first night so we could unwind a bit. This ended up being a mistake, because besides paying $150 for the room, the amenities were scarce, our appliances were broken and the staff was totally and utterly useless. I mean, they couldn’t give a shit at all about anything (apparently this is the Russian way, confirmed by quite a few Russians), including helping us. But we were able to get some rest, do some laundry (we have laundry bar soap and my trusty rope from Korea’s eMart that we use as a clothesline) and we were recharged for the next few days in the city.
The next day, we walked through town to the Irkutsk train station, where we walked from the end of one line to another at the ticket sales area because the concept of lining up in an orderly fashion is a foreign concept here and if you give the slightest indication of hesitation, the Russians will cut in front of you. Our godsend was a friendly police officer who spent a good 15 minutes with us, trying to help us buy our tickets on a machine.