© 2014 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.
I've visited a number of countries that were formerly part of the Soviet sphere of influence, but only after the breakup of the Soviet Union.
Official Name: Russian Federation (Россия); Capital: Moscow; Language: Russian; Country Code: RU; Currency: Ruble (RUB)
In 1992, I spent two weeks in St. Petersburg delivering a series of lectures and running some workshops for a local university. My wife and 8-year-old son accompanied me (both traveling on business visas, but that's another story). We stayed in an unloved apartment building and had a translator and guide assigned to us. The Soviet Era was not long gone and the times were interesting. On the street, I bought a T-shirt that said in Russian, "I was an agent of the KGB". While there was a free-market system for most things, we had to line up at a government-controlled store to buy bread. We introduced our guide (who was to become a long-time friend) to the Decadent West via pizza and Black Forest cake eaten in restaurants that took only hard currency cash (English pounds, US dollars, or Deutsch marks) or credit cards.
Attendees to my series of lectures had to pay something like 25% of their monthly income, and due to extreme inefficiencies in paper production, we had a limited print run of thin handouts. The people were very eager for information about all kinds of software and hardware. For my efforts, I got paid in rubles, the total of which amounted to about US$10. I used that to buy chocolates for the support staff.
While there, I negotiated to have two professors do a Russian translation of one of my textbooks, and I bought them a PC on which to do the work.
Official Name: Republic of Estonia (Eesti Vabariik); Capital: Tallinn; Language: Estonian; Country Code: EE; Currency: Euro (EUR), formerly kroon
After attending a conference in Lapland, Finland, my wife and I hopped over to Estonia for nine days, seven of which were spent with host families. It was a great experience.
[Diary] The high-speed ferry [from Helsinki] was booked out in Economy Class, so we bought Business Class tickets; however, quality food and drink were included, and the lounge was very comfortable. We ate heartily, and then the wind came, and it blew very hard making serious waves. Let's just say that I sat very still, eyes closed, dripping with perspiration, trying hard to hold on to my food, but to no avail. (Don't you just hate that when that happens?) I can say, however, that the Business Class toilets were very nice, and I spent quite some time there turning various shades of green.
… We drove to the large island of Saaremaa. During Soviet times, this island had some sort of special military status, but it remained different from a cultural point of view. Then we drove another 90 minutes, finally pulling off the main highway at an unmarked dirt track into the forest. The first half of it was quite rough from trucks hauling logs. Eventually, we arrived at the old farm our hosts had bought the previous year. It had electricity, but that's about it. The well water was not drinkable, and there was an outhouse. It had been abandoned for seven years, and without constant attention, had deteriorated quite a bit. We organized some bedding on the floor and went to sleep quite quickly.
[Diary] [It was a working holiday, so] We started work. Jenny and I began by cutting firewood, me with a small ax and she breaking kindling. Then host Heike and I hooked up an electric pump to the well to see how it worked. Then we had to clear some large downed trees from the edge of a field, so the tractor could cut the grass near the fence. Meanwhile, Jenny and host Kristel painted the outhouse and small shed, and did other jobs around the place. We worked until dusk, and then cleaned up to eat. Jenny and I cooked diced pork in an Asian rice-and-vegetable mix. It all disappeared rather quickly. Then we heated water in a bucket on the single hotplate, and took care of our communal cleaning, both cooking/eating things as well as ourselves. There was no bathroom or sink, just a table, four chairs, a woodstove, and buckets for fetching water from the well. We were camping indoors!
In the yard, there was an old, dead tree trunk, which housed a nest of large wasps. And, just for fun, another colony had a nest in the roof of the main house, so we had to pay attention when walking outside. Snakes were also mentioned, but we hadn't yet had the pleasure of meeting any.
[Diary] Tartu is the second largest city in Estonia, with 100,000 people. It has the largest university and is the home of the Supreme Court. Like Tallinn, it had also been a member of the Hanseatic League. We decided to splash out and treat ourselves to some luxury, so we headed for the Pallas hotel where we chose a 3-room suite. The suites were painted by art students from the university in the style of a famous Estonian artist. Ours had a lot of bright red, dark blue, yellow, black and white, splashed all over the walls and ceilings. My first reaction was "I'd died and gone to Hell!" It certainly was different. The carpet was dark blue, and the bathroom had grey floor tiles and black wall tiles all the way up to the ceiling. I think this would have made a great place for a rock band to stay.
[Diary] [At our host's place,] We breakfasted on toasted sandwiches and tea, all taken in a bright airy little kitchen, set amongst a menagerie of appliances: a French toaster, a Swedish fridge, a Japanese microwave oven, a Dutch coffee maker, and some Russian-made gadgets.
[Diary] We visited a forester who lived in a government apartment, but had bought land and was renovating a large log house on that property. That day, the family and friends were picking potatoes he cultivated near the house. We arrived around 11 am and got our work orders. The forester ran the tractor with digger up a row, and we followed along with buckets, picking up the potatoes on the surface as well as those buried a little below. We then put them into bags. After two hours, we took a tea break, then emptied the bags into a shed and went back to picking. Around 3 pm, food arrived and we settled down for a big meal of cabbage with minced meat and potatoes. The weather was glorious as was the wild strawberry tea.
Official Name: Republic of Poland (Rzeczpospolita Polska); Capital: Warsaw; Language: Polish; Country Code: PL; Currency: Złoty (PLN)
[Diary] My friend Ewa (pronounced Eva) meet me at the Poznan train station. We drove to her country house, a 2-story cottage with a garden. We opened the doors and windows to let the fresh air in, and set up a table on the verandah where we ate bread and honey while drinking tea. It was all veddy sophisticated, wot! The cultural highlight of the day was a visit to a small village that had a very old wooden church, and that very night, it would be packed for a concert of "Musica Sacra and Musica Profana", Music, Sacred and Profane.
[Diary] I brought out the pages I'd photocopied from my Jaeschke family book in Australia that traced my ancestors back to Posen Province of Prussia. The city of Posen is now called Poznan, and it is Polish. Johann Georg Jaeschke and his first wife had eight children. Some years after his wife died, he married again, but produced no further children. In 1839, because of religious differences, he took his wife and children to Hamburg where they caught the ship Catherina and sailed to Adelaide, the capital of the new state of South Australia. [It had been created in 1836 as a free state; there were no convict settlers. Subsequently, many thousands of German-Speaking Prussians from this area emigrated there where they spoke German for 100 years, until WWII made it unfashionable. My mother's family emigrated from Silesia, now southern Poland/Czech Republic.] My host did know several Jaeschke families in the area and found quite a few more listed in the greater metro area. I had visions of finding an old Jaeschke castle and estate in need of a prince or king, but then I thought if there was one, I'd probably have to pay 170-odd years of back taxes. [Be careful what you wish for, right?]
[Diary] The 3-story houses around the square were very nicely restored after WWII to their former Baroque and Renaissance styles complete with ornately painted and carved facades. The sides of the square were filled with outdoor restaurants, many of which seemed to be serving desserts. [My Polish host had told me that Poles didn't have a word for "lunch"; they ate breakfast, then late afternoon had an early supper, followed later by a late supper.] Nearby was the Church of St. Stanislaus. The interior was very ornate with marble and gilt everywhere. It surely was impressive, but for me, bordered on being "over the top".
[Diary] I didn't have long to wait before my bus came and took me all the way into the city and out again. Along the way, a woman sitting next to me started asking me questions in Polish. I replied in my best Orstralian, "Sorry Love, no hablo Polski!" My first cultural stop for the day was the church of the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem, a brick structure that dated back 900 years, and which was the only Maltese church in Poland. I knocked on the door to see if some of the knights could come out to play, but there was no answer. So I walked around the grounds and headed off to my next stop.
[Diary] I managed to communicate my wishes to the rather stern-looking woman at the ticket counter, and she sold me a 2nd-Class ticket to Szczecin (pronounced "Stettin"). I sat facing forwards and saw mile after mile of forest, punctuated occasionally with some small villages and corn and cereal fields. Although I had been reliably informed that Poland did indeed have animals, during the whole 210-km trip, I saw only one horse, one cow, and a group of beehives; that was it!
[Diary] I worked on some travel planning and did some research on Wikipedia about Polish history and geography relating to the day's events. One particular search involved finding out why Australia's highest mountain, Mt. Kosciuszko, was named in honor of the Polish national hero, and hero of the American Revolutionary War, General Tadeusz Kościuszko.
The Czech Republic
Official Name: Czech Republic (Česká republika); Capital: Prague; Language: Czech; Country Code: CZ; Currency: Czech koruna (CZK)
[Diary] As we descended over the outskirts of Prague, my first impressions were that everything was very neat and tidy, from the farms to the housing developments. The airport was quite modern and very pleasant with lots of open space. … I walked to my hotel in the sunshine, although it was cold. All the streets were paved with cobblestones, which, while quaint to look at, are not much good when one is pulling luggage with wheels.
[Diary] We drove through the countryside to Karlštejn to visit its famous castle. ... Next was Wenceslas Square, an intersection of some major thoroughfares. There was no sign of the "Good King looking out", but then it wasn't "the Feast of Stephen" either. At the southern end of the long square sat a huge building that would have looked beautiful if the black pollution layer was removed. It was the Royal Bohemian Museum, and I walked up to its entrance for a great view down the long street. Directly to its front and right was another internationally famous cultural icon, McDonalds!
[Diary] I went downstairs to the fitness room. There, I met Luci, a tall, thin, and very strong, young Czech woman who asked me to get naked and to lie on a bench. As she looked like she wasn't about to take NO for an answer, I complied, and my 60-minute Swedish, full-body massage began. She rubbed so vigorously that I feared she might ignite the oil! It had been a long while since I'd had a massage, and it felt good. Despite the physical nature of it, I almost went to sleep.
[Diary] I crossed the famous Charles Bridge, which was filled with stalls selling paintings, jewelry, and various crafts. The tourists were out in force and I chatted with a woman from Bavaria. I came across a jazz quintet that included trumpet, double bass, clarinet, and banjo. The percussion section consisted of a metal washboard with two small cymbals attached, which the man played using metal thimbles on his fingers or with a pair of egg whisks. I stood there for 15 minutes tapping my toes as the lead singer, a white Czech guy, did a pretty good imitation of Lois Armstrong singing "What a Wonderful World" and "When the Saints go Marching In." Soon after, the band packed up for the day and I made a small donation.
A light breeze blew down the river and there were some tour boats and a group of kayakers moving up and down. I walked all the way across the long bridge and a little ways on the other side before turning around. On the way home, next to the famous astronomical clock that performs several times each day, I spied a gelato stand where I had a small cone of hazelnut ice cream. It was altogether satisfactory.
[Diary] At St. Michael monastery, I joined 25 other patrons for a musical concert. I sat in the front row several arms'-length from the performers. Promptly at 18:30, the concert began, alternating between a female singer and male clarinet/saxophone player. Both were accompanied by a pianist. The theme was Broadway musicals, and without a doubt, the highlight was the sax and piano rendition of Rhapsody in Blue. It was 60 minutes of non-stop professional music. After a 30-minute break, another 1-hour concert started, but this time it was classical with a good dose of Baroque. The singer from the first performance sang quite a few numbers and she did a great job, especially with "Ave Maria" and "Amazing Grace". Three musicians played violins while the fourth played cello.
Official Name: Slovak Republic (Slovenská republika); Capital: Bratislava; Language: Slovak; Country Code: SK; Currency: Euro (EUR), formerly koruna
I stayed four great days/nights with a host family whose daughter I'd hosted some years earlier.
[Diary] We drove into Bratislava along the Danube and then out the other side to Devin, the site of a castle ruin that is being restored. We parked by the river, which was flowing very fast. It was extremely windy. We walked some distance to get to the castle entrance, following the path of the former barbed-wire fence that separated Slovakia from the Danube across the other side of which was Austria. We came upon a large monument that was made of some of the old barbed wire wrapped into the shape of a heart. There was also a memorial to the 400-odd people who were shot trying to get across the river during the years of the Iron Curtain. To make it more realistic, the concrete walls of the memorial had what were supposed to look like bullet holes!
[Diary] [At the pool] There were quite a few women of more advanced years sporting bikinis. (Yes, some people should keep their clothes on!) One woman especially caught my attention. She arrived wearing rather high heels and what looked like a bikini, only it was much smaller. She had bright red hair-from-a-bottle and double gold earrings and chains. She had a serious upper-body containment problem, and I doubted her natural buoyancy vest would allow her to stay underwater very long.
Official Name: Hungary (Magyarország); Capital: Budapest; Language: Hungarian; Country Code: HU; Currency: Forint (HUF)
I was hosted for four great days/nights by a Hungarian man and his Mexican wife.
[Diary] … Host Julieta offered to take me out. We walked through a very large park nearby. It had scaled-down versions of a number of famous buildings around Hungary, museums, a large ice rink, a permanent circus, and a zoo. Public baths/spas are big business here in Budapest, and we stopped in at Szechenyi Baths on the edge of the park just to look at the entrance hall and all its mosaics.
We walked down to Hero's Square to pay our respects to the statues there. From there, we walked down "Embassy Row", a main street where a number of embassies were located. In front of the Russian embassy, there was a large board with photos of Yuri Gagarin, the Soviet Union's first man in space. The next day, April 12, was the 50th anniversary of his flight.
We paid our respects to Franz (Hungarian name Ferenc) Liszt's statue and his music school. We also looked in the foyer of the famed Opera House. Quite a few buildings had been very nicely renovated. One of them contained a large book store at the back of which was a large ornately decorated hall that served as a coffee and cake restaurant. It was worth the climb up the steps to look inside. We started at the top end of the famous street Vaci Utca and walked down. It has business addresses and upscale shopping with a liberal dose of restaurants.
[Diary] I rode a tram down along the Danube to St. Stephen's Basilica, an impressive building. An organ concert was about to begin, so I laid down 2,500 HUF and went in to have a look around until the concert started. The organist played six pieces, by Albinoni, Pergolesi, Bach, Franck, and Schubert, and a mezzosoprano accompanied him on three, including "Ave Maria". It was 45 minutes well spent.
[Diary] Near the Parliament Building there was a large open-air photo exhibition. The theme was Hungarians living abroad as minorities, and minorities living in Hungary. Most photos were of modern-day peasant life in Romania with a few taken in Serbia, Slovenia, and Ukraine. Pretty much all of the subjects were poor and living in harsh conditions. I also stopped by to look at the eternal flame burning in memory of those killed during the 1956 uprising.
[Diary] After several days of cultural activities, it was time for some light entertainment. Yes, I was off to the circus. It was housed in a permanent building, and I got a seat in Row 4 just out of reach of any ringside action. However, this was no ordinary ring-of-dirt circus; no, this ring was 2/3 water with a stage at the back running into the center. I immediately noticed the plastic sheeting provided for patrons in the first row, which made my row choice ever better!
Official Name: Republic of Croatia (Republika Hrvatska); Capital: Zagreb; Language: Croatian; Country Code: HR; Currency: Kuna (HRK)
I vacationed along the Dalmatian Coast.
[Diary] I landed in Split. I had no idea what to expect of the countryside, but it was not at all what I expected! It was quite hot and humid with desolate rocky hills up to the Bosnian border. I'd booked an apartment via the internet and it was a 15-minute walk around the waterfront. It was in a quiet neighborhood. Unfortunately, the 2-D map I'd seen online didn't indicate the 45-degree slope or the need for oxygen on the walk up!
[Diary] Split's most famous attraction is the retirement palace complex of the Roman emperor Diocletian. There, I climbed the church tower, walked the narrow alleys, and saw many dozens of restaurants and shops full of mostly touristy stuff. … I headed out for a very pleasant stroll around the waterfront. The outdoor restaurants and bars were doing a roaring trade. Wall-to-wall stalls sold diving trips and cruises, jewelry, religious artifacts, popcorn, grilled sweet corn, fried potatoes, and henna tattoos. A clown made balloon animals. Two men dressed in the full costume of Roman soldiers—complete with spears—were "on patrol". A group of local seniors sang traditional songs accompanied by a guitar.
[Diary] The trip to Hvar Town, on Hvar Island on the huge catamaran was very smooth and I was inside in air-conditioned comfort. As I disembarked, women were everywhere offering rooms for rent. I approached one and she was delighted to have me stay for two nights. Once she answered all my questions, we walked to her car and drove up to the steeper part of town to her place. She was Bosnian, married to a Croat.
[Diary] I decided to rent a scooter, and 15 minutes later was racing away on my 50 cc charger to the pretty little town of Jelsa. Next stop was the neighboring town of Vrboska, a delightful place on a long, narrow inlet, which made a perfect home for the yacht club and marina. Some 200 sleek craft were tied up and bore flags or signs from Gibraltar, France, Germany, Norway, UK, and USA. The large town of Stari Grad was up next, but it hardly compared with the two places I'd visited earlier, so I didn't stay long. I decided to take the old road back home. Instead of having a tunnel, this one went up and over the mountain. My scooter's little rubber-band engine gallantly hauled me all the way up. The views from the top were impressive: down into steep valleys, over to the mainland, and out over numerous small islands. The weather was exactly right for riding.
[Diary] The 6:10-pm catamaran from Split pulled in right on time and people started disembarking. A rather drunk Brit staggered off and stopped to ask me, "Where am I?" I asked him where he wanted to be. He said he'd gotten off because everyone seemed be doing that. I told him that this stop or the next was all the same; both places had plenty of beer! Exactly five minutes after the ferry arrived, we were off to the island of Korčula, to the town of the same name.
[Diary] My bus headed out for Dubrovnik in light rain. The skies were heavy and quite dark. The road was narrow and followed the coast before climbing high into the mountains. The only agriculture was small patches of vineyards near towns. Winemaking seemed to be the only industry. The driver played some nice local, easy listening music.
[Diary] [In Dubrovnik] I walked through one of the entrances to the massive city walls. Boy were they impressive! At up to 70 feet high and 20 feet thick, my guess is they were built with nonunion labor. After a short walk I found a seat in a sunny place and settled into a long read of my novel, occasionally watching the tourists walk by and the tour boat traffic at the waterfront. When it was too dark to read, I had a small excursion around some plazas and alleyways. I came across a young man playing classical guitar, so I stopped to listen. It was a glorious evening outdoors.
[Diary] As I worked on my diary in my room overlooking the city walls, a sax player played some mournful tunes down on the gate bridge. However, he was interrupted by drums when a procession of soldiers dressed in ceremonial costume, complete with pikes, marched across the bridge and into the city.
[Diary] Inside the old city walls, it was wall-to-wall tourists (pun intended). I set out to make a complete trip around the inside of the wall, which I estimated was 1–2 miles around. As I was too cheap to pay to go out on top of the walls, I looked for back alleys that got me as close to the wall as possible. No sooner had I started that I was faced with 100+ steep steps, and I was perspiring before I was halfway up. I was going to need a vacation from this vacation! However, it got me to a great vantage point from which I could take some photos out over the orange-tile rooftops. Behind me was the small mountain from which the Serbs rained down artillery shells back in the 1990's. One can clearly see where they hit given the new, replacement roof tiles scattered among the old. Several thousand steep steps later, I'd gone full circle and was back at the bottom on the main street.
Official Name: Bosnia and Herzegovina (Bosna i Hercegovina or Босна и Херцеговина); Capital: Sarajevo; Language: Bosnian, Croatian, Serbian; Country Code: BM; Currency: Convertible mark (Bam)
I visited with a one-day bus-tour out of Dubrovnik, Croatia.
[Diary] Bosnia and Herzegovina has a 12 km-wide stretch of land that runs down to the sea, separating the Dubrovnik province from the rest of Croatia. We crossed the border and then after a pit stop, we crossed back into Croatia. At the River Neretva we turned north passing through a former mosquito-infested swamp that the Austro-Hungarians had drained 100 years ago. Now, the area was a 1,000-acre agricultural basin where citrus (primarily mandarins), stone fruits, melons, and salad vegetables are grown. We followed the river to the Bosnian border where our passports were scanned and a border policeman came on board to look us over.
… In Mostar a local guide lead us on a walking tour. The first stop was the Turkish House, an authentic residence of a wealthy family from the Ottoman period. After that, we stopped by one of many parks that were turned into cemeteries to bury the 5,000 dead from the 1990's war. (A main street divided the warring factions and there was heavy house-to-house fighting.) Next, we walked down steep cobblestone steps through the bazaar and there before us was the famous bridge whose destruction in the war made headlines around the world. I browsed around a few shops and galleries before crossing the bridge and sitting in the shade on a cool stonewall to write these notes. A PA system on one of the mosques sounded the call to prayers. I found a path down to the river and took some photos of the bridge from below.
Official Name: German Democratic Republic (Deutsche Demokratische Republik); Capital: East Berlin; Language: German; Country Code: DD; Currency: DDR mark (DDM)
My first visit to this area was in September 1999, after German Reunification, so I never had the dubious pleasure of seeing the DDR in action. I'll make mention of some of my visits to the six former-East German states in the future essay, "Memories of the Germanic States".
I found the people in all these countries to be friendly, hard-working, and very happy to be rid of the Soviet yoke. However, for the younger people, they had no first-hand experience of the old system.
Bucket List: High on my list are Slovenia (with a side-trip to Trieste and Venice), the Roman ruins in the Istrian Peninsula of Croatia, as well as Zagreb, and the Plitvice Lakes National Park. And I can easily imagine renting an apartment in Dubrovnik for a month, and spending the days reading, writing, walking, talking, and eating.