A Traveler In The Foreign Service: A Guys Road Trip To Transylvania

transylvaniaIn the Foreign Service, it’s easy to calculate who your best friends are. They’re the people who will come visit you in places like Khartoum, Yekaterinburg or Bujumbura. Diplomats who get posted to London, Paris, Rome and a handful of other cushy places find themselves running informal bed and breakfast operations, as marginal friends and distant relatives come out of the woodwork to claim a free place to stay.

We had several friends tell us that they planned to visit us in Macedonia but none made the trip. I expected an uptick in business when we moved to Budapest, but my first visitor wasn’t interested in the typical grand tour of Central Europe.
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“I was thinking we should go to Romania,” said Ian, a good friend from St. Louis who had never been to Prague, Germany and a host of other far more celebrated European destinations.

“Why Romania?” I asked, more than a little surprised.Ian’s logic was that he could easily visit Prague or Vienna with his wife and perhaps even their three small children, but Romania would be a tougher sell. So we made a vague plan to spend a weekend in Budapest and then take a four- or five-day road trip to Transylvania and Ian was on our doorstep weeks later.

As we motored through the grubby, Americanized suburbs of Budapest on a Monday morning in March, heading east toward Transylvania with no set itinerary, we both realized what a rare treat it was to have a men’s getaway.

“It’s Monday morning and instead of being on my way to work in St. Louis, I’m here driving through Budapest on my way to Transylvania,” Ian remarked. “I like it!”

Our progress east was slow, on a two-lane road clogged with slow moving trucks, passing through forlorn little towns with homes built seemingly right on the road with no setback. As we neared the Romanian border, we passed ramshackle gypsy settlements and saw a few haggard looking prostitutes working the side of the road. I felt lucky that our greatest concern in life at that moment was who the Cubs would choose as their fifth starter for the upcoming season.

We were two married American men in a Toyota with diplomatic plates slowing down to get a better look at roadside prostitutes near the Romanian border on a Monday afternoon. Good times.

Romania had just joined the European Union less than three months before our visit and it was still a matter of speculation whether hordes of Romanians would vote with their feet. We saw many of the same major European chains present in Hungary, but the roads were dicier, there were a lot more farmers poking around on horse drawn carriages and there were plenty of old Dacia’s left over from the communist era sharing the road with souped-up Mercedes’s and BMW’s piloted by kamikazes who thought nothing of passing on blind curves, shoulders or simply right into oncoming traffic.

The roadside villages en route to Oradea defined unremitting rural poverty, but the soul crushing Soviet era apartment blocks that dominated the gloomy outskirts of Oradea seemed even worse.

The center of Oradea looked more promising, but even the colorful baroque buildings all seemed to be in need of a coat of paint. Oradea had been part of the Kingdom of Hungary until the conclusion of World War I, when Hungary lost a massive chunk of its territory, and as recently as the 1960′s, there were more ethnic Hungarians than Romanians in Oradea. But on this day, I didn’t hear any Hungarian speakers.

We had lunch at a garish looking Italian restaurant and on our way out of town, a gypsy gave me the finger after I took a photo of him hollering at his recalcitrant son.

Romanian womanIt was dark by the time we reached Cluj-Napoca, a thriving metropolis once known as the Hungarian capital of Transylvania. We stopped at a shady looking hotel and a short young man in a vest showed us a cold, depressing room that was outfitted with what looked like prison furniture. According to our guidebook, the place featured an “erotic show” in the basement.

“What time does the show start?” I asked, even though we had no intention of checking it out.

The young man appeared confused so I re-phrased the question.

“What time do the girls start dancing?”

“No, no,” he said, “We don’t have girls here any more.”

A second hotel seemed even worse and they wanted 80 euros – a princely sum for a dump in Transylvania. We finally landed at a surprisingly posh hotel in a residential neighborhood that also provided some sort of vague “business solutions” and “consulting.”

“Where can we find the boyhood home of Gheorghe Muresan?” Ian asked the pretty girl at the front desk. “You know the basketball player, I think he’s from Cluj, Gheorghe Muresan!”

She eventually registered that Ian was referring to the bizarre looking, 7-foot-7-inch Romanian giant, who is one of the tallest and least talented players in NBA history.

“I think he lives in New Jersey,” she said.

We had read that Cluj was a happening town with 70,000 students and a thriving club scene; but we didn’t expect much on a Monday night. The first bar we hit was a stylish place that would not have looked out of place in Berlin or New York. It was about nine o’clock and the place had a smattering of customers.

“What time do you close?” I asked the barkeep.
“Six,” he said.
“Six?” I repeated, “As in six in the morning?”
He nodded his head.
“And does it get busy on a Monday?”
“It is getting busy all of the days,” he remarked.




We hit a stylish basement bar on the recommendation of a group of young women we met on the street and as Ian and I were chatting about our respective lives in St. Louis and Budapest, a woman came over to the booth and, before I knew what was happening, kissed us both on both cheeks, greeting us as though we were long lost friends. It took me a moment to register that it was one of the young ladies who had recommended the place to us.

The most outgoing of the group, named Adriana, wanted to know why we were in Cluj. It was a good question that I had no coherent answer for.

“In America hardly anyone parties on Monday nights,” I said. “So we had to come to Cluj.”

Adriana looked puzzled.

“I would think in the States you could party every night,” she said. “People have more money there than here, so why not?”

“Well, we could go out every night, but we just don’t,” I said before entering into a rambling discourse about how many channels most Americans get and the high cost of beer.

Ian and I hit another bar and somehow managed to stay out until almost 4 a.m. The place was still going strong when we left and I’m quite sure that the students danced until sunrise, if not later. An ordinary Monday night in Cluj is a lot like Mardi Gras in New Orleans, without the beads and flashing.

In the light of day, Cluj seemed like a city in transition. Sidewalks were being torn up, students and beefy gangsters in matching sweat suits hung out in trendy looking cafés, and we felt that it probably wouldn’t be long before the city became a popular spot for backpackers. Yet just minutes outside of town, there was no escaping the Old Romania and the generation that still made its living off of the earth, plying their trade with ancient looking farming instruments and horse drawn carts.

We had no reservations for Sibiu, our next stop, and were shocked that the first two hotels we tried were both sold out. We finally found a motel on the outskirts of the old town but had to park the car several blocks away, after trying in vain to navigate the city’s ancient street plan.

Sibiu is a strikingly beautiful town that is set right in the heart of some incredible Alpine scenery. It had just been named a European cultural capital and much of the town’s historic center had received an impressive face-lift.

sibiu romaniaThe atmospheric streets all seemed to radiate out from a colossal square that was dotted with colorful Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque style buildings in keeping with the town’s Saxon heritage. Unlike Cluj, Sibiu was dead at night. Each night we ended up at the only place that seemed to be open late, a little street side kiosk that sold cold drinks and phone cards.

An enterprising young college student named Elena, who sat bundled up in the cold booth, worked the overnight shift.

“I work here at night because I’m saving up to buy a computer,” she explained.

“But when do you sleep?” I asked.

“I go straight from here to class in the morning, and then, if I can, I try to sleep after classes, if I don’t have too much work to do,” she said.

Ian and I were taken aback. In our culture, if you want something, you just go out and buy it. We pledged to return the following evening with a small contribution toward her computer purchase, but we returned the following night to find that she had the night off. The older woman who was there in her place seemed suspicious when we asked how we could contact her.

We thought about leaving the cash with her but decided not to because we didn’t want her to get the wrong idea about why two American guys were leaving cash for a young woman.

As we left town the next day, we talked about Elena and I felt like her willingness to stay up all night in a freezing cold kiosk was a reminder of how lucky we were to be American men on the loose in Transylvania with no reservations or responsibilities.

[Photo credits: Dave Seminara, CamilG on Flickr (Sibiu)]

Read More From “A Traveler In The Foreign Service

World Subway Maps Drawn To Scale

subway maps by Neil FreemanThink New York has the most extensive subway system in the world? You may be right, but it’s a toss-up with London and Berlin. It’s easy to judge if you take all the metro systems and draw them to the same scale, as artist and urban planner Neil Freeman did in a series of minimalist subway maps. Comparing different systems, it’s a wonder why cities like Budapest even bothered with a metro, yet having ridden it, it’s a pretty extensive system.

Check out more of Neil Freeman’s awesome work, including a comparison of US metro regions and their respective states, a postcard of IATA airport codes, and in topical news, the electoral college map on his site Fake Is The New Real.

[Photo Credit: Neil Freeman]

Knocked Up Abroad: Lessons Learned From Traveling With A Baby

travel with a baby
Long before I became a mother, people told me that the first six months is the easiest time to travel with a baby – before they walk, talk or require children’s activities. Others told me to travel as much as possible before you have children, as it’s too difficult to go places for the first few years. I can confirm that you don’t have to turn in your passport when you have a baby, as my daughter Vera turns one year old today (they really do grow up so fast), and I’ve traveled with her extensively since she was six weeks old, as well as frequently when I was pregnant. As she was born in Turkey, far from our families and home country, I knew travel would be a factor in her life, but never expected I would love traveling with her and try to fit in as many trips as possible (nine countries and counting).

I’ve written here on Gadling a series of articles on planning travel, flying and international travel with baby, and expanded on these topics on my blog, Knocked Up Abroad Travels. I still stand by all of those tips and tricks, but below are the most important lessons I’ve learned from traveling with a baby in the first year.

Do a test run trip
Just as a baby has to learn to crawl before they can walk, start small with your explorations. Before you plan a big trip with a baby, take a shorter “test run” to see it’s not so hard and learn what your challenges might be. Taking a short flight to an unfamiliar place, especially with a time change, language or cultural barrier, is good practice before you take a bigger trip. If you live in the U.S., a long weekend in Canada or the Caribbean, or even Chicago, could be a nice break and a useful lesson on traveling with a baby. While we live in Istanbul, travel in Europe is (relatively) cheap and quick, so taking a vacation in Malta with Vera at six weeks old was an easy first trip. For our first trip home to visit family and friends, I flew to and from the U.S. by myself with Vera. If I hadn’t traveled with her before, it might have seemed daunting to fly 10 hours solo with a baby, but it was smooth sailing. Confidence is key, especially when you learn you’ll do just fine without the bouncy seat for a few days.Stay flexible
Parenting experts may say that babies need structure and routine, but recognize that they are also very flexible, especially in the early months when they mostly sleep and eat. As long as you can attend to the baby’s immediate needs, it doesn’t matter much where you do it; a baby’s comfort zone is wherever you are. Babies also make planning near impossible. You may find that just as you planned to visit a museum, you’ll need to find somewhere to sit down to feed the baby, with a decent bathroom for changing a diaper. You might eat dinner later than expected as you walk the baby around the block a few more times to get her to sleep. We kept our first trip with Vera to Malta simple, relaxing by the sea in Gozo and wandering around the old city of Valletta: no itinerary, no must-sees, no ambitious day trips. We missed out on a few “important” sights and spent a few days doing little more than reveling in the joys of cheap wine, trashy novels and ham sandwiches, but it was stress-free and helped us to connect with the place as well as each other.

Re-consider where you stay and how you get around
Once you start planning a trip with a baby, you might be spending more time on AirBnB than Hotels.com. When you travel with a child, you care less about hotel design or public amenities like a gym (ha!) and more about in-room comfort and conveniences like a separate bedroom space or kitchenette. On an early trip, we stayed in a friend’s home in Trieste, in a vacation apartment in Venice and in a room above a cafe in Ljubljana, and each had their advantages. In Italy, it was nice to have access to laundry and space to cook a meal with friends when we were too tired to go out; while when I was on my own in Slovenia, it was handy to go downstairs for breakfast or a much-needed glass of wine, and someone was always around if I needed help with the stroller. You’ll also have to think differently about how you get around town with a stroller or carrier and plan some routes in advance. In London, I spent a lot of time on the excellent Transport For London website mapping out which tube stations had elevators and what days I would use a carrier only (I love the Boba wrap). In Venice, I didn’t bother with a stroller at all for the city’s many stairs, bridges and cobblestone streets, but needed to stop more frequently to rest my tired shoulders and was grateful for extra hands to hold the baby while I ate pasta.

Everywhere is nice in a “baby bubble”
You should be prepared to be self-sufficient when traveling with a baby, from boarding a plane to getting on a subway, but you’ll be surprised by how helpful strangers can be, especially outside the U.S. Not touching strangers’ babies seems to be a uniquely American concept, while in Mediterranean Europe, waiters will often offer to carry your baby around or give them a treat (say thanks and eat it yourself). After Istanbul, I found Budapest to be the most baby-friendly, and even trendy restaurants had changing facilities and bartenders who wanted to play peekaboo. I expected Londoners to be rather cold, but their stiff upper lips were more often smiling and cooing. A tube employee helped me carry the stroller up several flights of stairs when an elevator wasn’t working, and I got table service in a cafe that normally only had counter service. Don’t expect special treatment because you have a baby, but enjoy it when it comes.

Stay calm and carry travel insurance
Having a sick baby is scary for anyone, especially when you are in a foreign country far from home. Statistically, it’s more likely that your child will get sick or hurt at home, but it can happen on the road as well. Before you take off, figure out what you will do in an emergency: can you get travel insurance that covers a visit to a pediatrician? Can you change or cancel travel plans if the baby is sick? If you rent an apartment, do you have local contacts in case something happens? In Budapest, by myself, I had a few incidents getting stuck in an elevator, locked out of our apartment and having the baby slip out of a highchair. Everything worked out fine, but staying calm was key as upsetting the baby would have just added to the stress. Coming back from Belgrade last month, our daughter woke up with a cold and a mild fever the day we were supposed to fly home. Our wonderful AirBnB hostess got us medicine and we ultimately decided to fly the short trip as scheduled, but if it had been more serious, I could have paid the change fee to delay our flight and visit a local doctor. The baby was fine the next day, though I still have some Serbian fever reducer for her next cold.

Don’t let the turkeys get you down
Perhaps I’ve become more sensitive to the idea, but I’ve noticed recently that screaming babies on airplanes have become the catch-all complaint for everything that’s wrong with air travel (though in Gadling’s Airline Madness tournament of travel annoyances, children didn’t make it to the final four). Look up any news story about children and airplanes and you’ll find a long list of angry commenters complaining about how they don’t want to sit next to your “brat” on the plane, and that you shouldn’t subject other people to your lifestyle choices. A crying baby is not an inevitability, and planes are still public transportation, so don’t get psyched out by the looks and comments from other passengers. After 22 flights with Vera without a tantrum or crying fit, I’ve learned that the most important thing is to pay attention to your baby and be considerate of others. I still tell my airplane “neighbors” that I’ll do whatever it takes to keep her quiet and happy, and by the time we land, we’ve made more friends than enemies.

Enjoy it while it lasts
The first two years are the cheapest time to travel with a child: domestic air travel is free for lap children, international tickets are a fraction (usually 10 percent) of the adult fare, and most hotels and museums allow babies free of charge for the first few years. This time is also the most “adult” you’ll have for awhile, before you have to consider the whims and boredom of a child. Vera’s first year has been delightfully kid-menu and Disney-free. In a few years we may have to rethink our itinerary and even our destinations, but so far, not much has changed. We still love going to post-Soviet cities, wandering around oddball museums and sitting outside at wine bars to people watch, though our bedtime might be a bit earlier.

Share your lessons learned while traveling with a baby, or tell me what I’m in for in year two in the comments below.

Cockpit Chronicles: Getting More Out Of Layovers

For some, life couldn’t be any more perfect than if they were paid to travel. I’ve run across three airline crew members who have discovered ways to keep their jobs fresh and exciting by embracing what is for them the biggest benefit that comes with working for an airline: travel.

You hear about the turbulence in the airline industry nearly every week – layoffs, pay cuts, pensions lost and airlines shutting down. The echo chamber at work is enough to drive an airline employee crazy after hearing how these events are affecting everyone. But a few pilots and flight attendants I’ve worked with have come to the conclusion that they’re unable to change the situation materially, and so they may as well find a way to enjoy the job.

2 STEWS

I like to think I’m an adventurous traveler, although my definition of adventurous is to try to avoid eating at the same place in a given city more than once. I rarely succeed, but it’s a goal at least.

Years ago, a flight attendant asked me for advice about purchasing a digital SLR camera. She started a blog called 2 Stews that revolved around eating and writing about various restaurants in Europe and recreating some of the amazing dishes. I was surprised when she heeded my advice not to skimp on the camera and began to take some eye-popping pictures of the food and sights she came across.Today, she looks forward to trips, planning them well in advance to secure reservations for herself and some of her fellow crew members. For her, the job no longer revolves around the work she does going back and forth across the Atlantic, it’s more about the next topic or theme she plans for her blog. I’m similarly motivated when I come across a subject I want to talk about in “Cockpit Chronicles,” which lately hasn’t been often enough.

Here, Diane catches us up on her schedule, which ends in Rome, so naturally she shares the recipe for a dish she had previously there that had an unusual mix of ingredients:

Lately I feel like the Johnny Cash song, I’ve Been Everywhere. In the past few weeks I’ve been to Dallas, Rome, Budapest, Boston, New York, Minneapolis, Boise, Idaho and back again. I’m off to Rome today. I’m not complaining, mind you, but my affairs aren’t in order. The weeds are growing, the dust is collecting and my computer time has been zero. If only I had an iPad for my journeys….plus a few days off! Oh yeah, don’t forget a house cleaner on that list of wants.

I settled yesterday for an easy and tasty pasta dish to keep me going. I have been wanting to make the Pater Nostri pasta I bought in Rome using a recipe that was inspired by a dish I had at Trattoria Moderne last month. It had Italian sausage, pear and radicchio. The flavors rounded out each other with a little sweet from the pear, some savory sausage, salty cheese and a slightly bitter taste from the radicchio. The essences of life.

2 Stews Blog

Diane has collected so much about Paris that she’s started a blog featuring that work called Merci Paris.

RUDY’S RIO

Aspiring to learn everything there was to know about his favorite city, Rudy has ventured nearly everywhere in Rio de Janeiro and logged enough helpful tips that he’s become the go-to guy for other pilots and flight attendants interested in Rio. He put together a guide that he shares in paper form with crew members, which caused me to try things I never would have otherwise – such as a frango from a farmers market, for example.
I committed the Portuguese word for chicken to my short-term memory and marched down to the weekly market near our hotel and ordered a frango with some sort of sugar cane drink.

I’m convinced that Rudy may know more about the city than some of the locals. I thought I knew Paris well, but I couldn’t write anything for the City of Light that would approach what he’s done for Rio. In order to get around a little easier, Rudy has a bike in Rio and is planning on picking up another one so he can bring someone else from the crew along with him on his adventures.

On the day he leaves Rio, Rudy will routinely carve up some fruit purchased at a farmers market, some of which isn’t available in the states, and put it on a plate before delivering it to the rooms of the two other pilots he’s flying with hours before meeting for pickup.

Above and beyond, I’d say!


Rudy’s delicious fruit from the market in Rio prepared and delivered to our rooms!

JET VIGNETTES

IJet Vignettes Flight Attendant Book‘ve flown with Catherine Caldwell for years, but I never realized what a true expert she was on getting the most out of her trips until reading her recently published book, “Jet Vignettes.” (Available on Amazon, the Kindle and as an iBook from iTunes.)

Catherine’s advice for dining in Paris resonated with me:

When I first started flying to Paris, I knew nothing of where to eat in the city. My crew members and I would walk to the Latin Quarter because initially no matter who we asked – friends, passengers, other flight attendants – all said the Latin Quarter. All said this area hits the quota mark for the highest concentration of “cute” Parisian restaurants. Each layover we went to the Latin Quarter, layover after layover, in search of the holy grail of true Parisian cuisine, the kind we heard and read about, the dinner that was the true pinnacle of dining in Paris. Each time, we passed the restaurants with flower boxes, checked curtains, old architecture, and beckoning waitstaff holding enticing menus. After five subpar meals of so-so food, expensive bills, sitting next to table after table of American tourists, it dawned on me, this was not the place to eat at all in Paris. That was 1996, and I have eaten in the Latin Quarter only once since, at a Greek restaurant that was actually pretty good (I picked up a card).

She then went on to talk about a few of her favorites in Paris as well as other places in Europe, and includes a section on pastis in Paris and shopping in local grocery stores while abroad. She includes a few telling anecdotes about her job, such as the requisite chapter on the Mile High Club and 9/11 as well as helpful chapters such as “Big Cities on a Flight Attendant Budget” and how to look like a local in various countries. Like Diane, Catherine regularly updates her blog after nearly every trip, it seems.

I wholeheartedly recommend “Jet Vignettes.” I even learned a few things about her job, and picked up some tips that I’ll put to use on international layovers.

In fact, all three of these extraordinary people have inspired me to get out and explore more while traveling, and subsequently to enjoy my job more. And that’s something every airline employee could use right now.

Cockpit Chronicles” takes you along on some of Kent’s trips as a pilot based in New York. Have any questions for Kent? Check out the “Cockpit Chronicles” Facebook page or follow Kent on Twitter @veryjr.

National Gallery in Budapest exhibits art of epic Hungarian history

Budapest
The Hungarian capital of Budapest is a popular destination for those who love high art and culture. Its sumptuous National Gallery is famed across Europe, and now it’s putting on a new exhibition highlighting the nation’s history.

Heroes, Kings, Saints – Pictures and Memories of Hungarian History brings together some of the masterpieces of 19th century Hungarian painting. This was a high point in Hungarian art and a time when artists looked to the past for inspiration. Several rarely seen works of art will be on display, including Conquest (The entry of the Hungarians in the Carpathian Basin) painted by Mihály Munkácsy in in 1893 for the Hungarian parliament.

Part of this epic painting is shown above, courtesy Marta Pataki. The original is 15 meters (49 feet) long.

The exhibition was opened this week by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. The exhibition marks Hungary’s new constitution, which came into effect at the beginning of the year. An article in the Guardian notes that while Orbán was opening the exhibit, thousands demonstrated outside the gallery against what they say are his increasingly authoritarian tendencies and the new Constitution’s granting of more power to the executive.

With the nation so deep in crisis, Orbán’s every move, even appearing at a gallery opening, are subject to public comment.

Heroes, Kings, Saints – Pictures and Memories of Hungarian History runs until August 26.