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I don't know about you, but I love sudden bursts of nostalgia at unexpected moments. Without our past, we're nothing. Everything about it shapes us into the person we are today, for both good and bad. It happened to me recently during the Mid-West journey, when I entered a shop that sold vintage games and toys from my childhood. For a brief second, I was transported back to age 10, when I used to sit with my younger sister and play with Transformers, Lite-Brite, Speak 'n' Spell, Mr. Potato Head and other treasures from the 1980's. Some of you probably don't even recognize these toys. :)

In the middle of rural Estonia last autumn, I stumbled upon a small village that houses old Soviet cars. A sort of refuge for abandoned cars in need of some care and company. While I'm fascinated with all things from the USSR, seeing these relics stirred no emotion within me but I could see it arising in my Russian travel companion. I don't know the feeling of boarding a bus in Soviet times, sitting on a hard chair, or being chased by a tiny police car. But today I'll show you some photos from this village, and perhaps for a brief moment your childhood memories will also be awakened...Read more... )
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Some women dream of vacations filled with romantic walks, glowing sunsets and sandy beaches. For me, the idea of a Soviet prison and gas masks seemed more intriguing. With this in mind, I made a stop at Karosta Prison in Liepaja, Latvia during the autumn Eastern European journey. It's difficult to determine the greatest threat in the modern world, but at one point it was nuclear annihilation, with the Soviet Union and America being the culprits of tension. I grew up at the end of the Cold War and never really experienced the neurosis associated with the threat of a nuclear attack, but my parents who were young children at the height of the Cuban missile crisis recall "duck and cover" drills at school. Alarms sounded and school children were trained to take cover under their desks in the event of a nuclear attack. It looked something like the photo below, and Americans also were indoctrinated with films, posters and cartoons explaining safety procedures during an atomic blast.

duck-and-cover     Bert2


It seems unthinkable that hiding under a desk could prevent the drastic consequences of a nuclear blast, but one Hiroshima official claims he trained local policemen to duck for cover after an atomic flash, and as a result not a single Nagaskai policeman died in the initial blast. Perhaps this is an urban legend, but in any event for me there's great curiosity about this period of history. I'm certain Soviet children were also trained about nuclear attacks, but I don't know the specific procedures. Perhaps some of you went through the drills?Read more... )
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Great films are like great songs. They transport us to another place or time, and evoke emotion. We become so closely connected to the characters and plot that we're sometimes moved to tears, anger, fear, or hysterical laughter. I remember visiting my relatives in California as a teenager and taking a tour of Universal Studios Hollywood. There I saw the famous "Psycho" house in which Norman Bates hid his decaying mother, but my favorite part of the tour was the clock tower from the movie "Back to the Future." I'm certain you all know this film series, which is one of my favorites of all time. Hop into a time machine and experience life during a different era - sure why not! It's every adventurer's dream scenario. To which place and time would I travel? Undecided! Yet films also can be dangerous as they often project stereotypes about ethnicities, cultures and places. If a foreigner's perception of America is based solely on Hollywood films, then they would be sadly mistaken about the realities of life in my country. The same can be said about Hollywood's portrayal of Russia and Russians.

During my autumn journey through Eastern Europe, I had the opportunity to visit two film studios. The first, pictured here, is a modern and futuristic studio located in Poland. I immediately braced for an alien invasion when I saw the outside.Take a look inside )

Captive!

May. 6th, 2014 11:21 am
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American held captive in former Soviet prison - Latvia. Perhaps I'll write about this place. In the meantime, enjoy the photo. :) I don't even remember the nature of my offense. Probably it's written on this card, and I simply can't understand the Russian. You can pose in various military outfits, but I have no idea what rank this uniform signifies. The color is difficult to see in the scanned postcard, however the jacket and hat are dark green. I think the guard got extra enjoyment pretending to punish and torture an American. Cool experience.

This is an interesting country. I hope one day I'll return to explore further. In case you missed my first post about Latvia a few months ago, you can view here:

Ventspils, Latvia
ventspilsjpg

Tomorrow I'll tell you about Latvian Hollywood! 
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It all started with the movie "Before Sunrise." I watched this film a week before joining United Airlines, and immediately envisioned a grand rail trip through Europe. On the journey, I'd meet a handsome foreign stranger, we'd engage in intellectual intercourse for hours and then skip off from the station to some remote, romantic bridge for a sunset kiss. I've never once traveled the rails during any of my international trips, so this fairy tale remains buried in my mind. Such train encounters seem less likely in today's world, where everyone's face is buried in mobile devices and laptops, yet I'd like to believe they're still possible mostly because romance and the rails remain intertwined in a lot of societies. I most recently saw it in Wolsztyn, Poland, home to an operating steam locomotive. The locomotive itself is very cool, but my attention was initially drawn to this beautiful wedding couple on the track.Read more... )
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Never in my life have I dreamed of being a princess in a castle twirling my golden locks of hair, or of finding prince charming. In my mind, such men don't exist. A false illusion created by numerous Disney movies, yet castles always hold a real sense of charm and intrigue. When I first started traveling in Europe over a decade ago, such structures were completely new to me as an American. Castles aren't woven into American culture or landscapes. However, after visiting dozens of them throughout Europe they all began to blur together so I removed them from my travel agenda in European countries. Then I got a fancy camera a year ago and became more interested in photography. As a novice shooter, castles provide exceptional vantage points so I now make an effort to stop at them while traveling in this region of the world. In Slovakia, we encountered a very unique castle system, filled with obstacles and prohibitions. First stop was Orava Castle, pictured in the cover photo.Read more... )
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There's something about being surrounded by mountains and hills that brings me inner peace. I envision them as nature's hug, for the sea is equally as beautiful but more fluid and turbulent. Mountains and hills for the most part sit peacefully, blanketing you with their presence from the road, air or foot. It was in Slovakia that we first encountered such landscapes on our Eastern Euro journey. Slovakia is the only country on our route to which I previously traveled, making a brief stop in Bratislava and neighboring Czech Republic a few years ago. It's here that we saw the most beautiful nature on the entire trip. I never tire of such scenery anywhere on the planet, even though I can view all of the same landscapes in my own country. The Slovaks typically are pleasant people, living quiet lives in a country that's not so popular on the European tourist trail. So, let's take a look at some of the rural areas and people we encountered.Read more... )
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Breezy air, colder temperatures and a lot of cows! Welcome to Ventspils, Latvia, where we first met the Baltic Sea on our journey. The town holds a special distinction - the first Eastern European city in which the international cow parade was held. This annual event was completely unknown to me before the trip, but some U.S. cities have hosted the event. What's so special about cows that an entire festival is organized in their honor every year? I don't consider them to be very cute, though certainly tasty. However, everything changes when an artist gets hold of a blank canvas in the shape of a cow. Suddenly bright colors, designs and even jewelry bring life to an otherwise dull animal. With the right guidance and government support, they can even transform an entire town.Read more... )
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What I remember most from almost every journey is the people I meet along the way. People who restore my faith in humanity and sometimes even ignite something within my soul. You can read about any place and learn its history from books or the Internet. You can look at pictures of beautiful scenery throughout the world, but you can't really understand a country or its people until you've actually walked the soil. Until you meet the common folk there and see the way they live. Before the trip I knew very little about Estonia, except that it was formerly under Soviet control. While I saw some similarities with Russia, what touched me the most was the stark contrast in human relations. I met these women at a market near the Estonian/Latvian border. The smiles on their faces reflective of all of the Baltic States we visited. Open and friendly people, welcoming foreign guests into their small corner of the world. So, let's take a quick peak inside Estonia...Read more... )
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I've gone through very few border crossings in my life, but the most memorable one was entering Belarus from Poland at the end of a long Eastern European road trip last autumn. Russians are politely waved through at these check points, but if they're traveling with an American, they will quickly be transported back to Soviet times in an instant, with questioning, slow efficiency, and border procedures reminiscent of the Cold War era. I wrote before that getting my visa for Belarus was very expensive and time consuming. The whole trip I waited for the opportunity to flash this shiny object to border patrol at the Poland/Belarus crossing.

At first everything was great. No lines, but we arrived during the shift change from the evening to morning crew. Everyone moving so slowly to begin work!! We waited patiently until the new crew was in place. Finally a stern border agent waved us forward, we showed both passports and then he asked for proof of insurance for me. I gave him my U.S. insurance card because the coverage is worldwide. But he quickly informed us it isn't acceptable for Belarus, and we were told we couldn't enter. An insurance agent is usually available at the crossing but on this day she was "on holiday." No other alternatives were offered. The first Belarusian border agent a real mudak! Sometimes in this region of the world the mentality is mind numbing. If there's a problem, it's yours and yours alone. "NO!", a very easy answer while creative solutions require thought and brain power that some workers believe is beyond their pay grade.Read more... )
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The Eastern Euro journey is in full swing now, after a very long drive on Thursday from Moscow to Estonia. Yes, the same horrible roads but a different Russian "highway" this time than the one we drove to St. Petersburg. It doesn't matter the "M" number, M9 or M10, I will say the same thing I said before but in a more polite way. Russian roads and drivers are freaking scary! Panic for the entire day as we passed huge trucks in head on traffic. We entered Estonia at a tiny border crossing, only a short wait in line but then there were some problems when Sasha told them he had cigarettes. Too many under Estonian law, and thus a duty tax was to be imposed. But no one could figure out the amount!! So, after wasting a lot of time they eventually let him go with no fees. Great! We're on our way to Estonia and then I look in my passport. No stamp!! They somehow forgot so a quick turnaround back to the border and everything was fixed. Customs/border agents were all very friendly. The section of the road right before the border crossing at Pskov is in very good condition. Magnificent cloud filled sky as we entered Estonia!Read more... )

Visa Woes!

Sep. 24th, 2013 04:03 am
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Sleepy morning here in my Frankfurt hotel room! It's immediately clear I'm back on European soil as everyone is smoking and the breakfast buffet consisted mostly of deli meats. :)) Tonight I'll return to Moscow, flash my multi-entry visa and we'll be on our way to Eastern Europe! I must say the Russian visa process was quite simple compared to the hell I experienced in getting my visa for Belarus. I first applied for a 90 day tourist visa - DENIED! Then I got a call at the beginning of last week informing me they would grant a 30 day tourist visa, single entry. However, given the close departure date it would be necessary to pay "expedited" fees. I guess it's my own fault for not asking how much these fees were, but when I picked up the visa the cost was $458 USD!  Yes, $458 for a single entry visa. Extortion!! :) I didn't understand what all the fees were and when I tried to ask the Embassy staff to explain they simply said - "this is the cost if you want the visa!" Excellent customer service!

Yes, Americans are mostly visa virgins. We need them for very few countries, but I'm certain this Belarus visa is a complete scam. Denying the visa at first, then forcing people to pay expedited fees at the last minute. We were initially going to be in Belarus only in transit, but will now stop in at least one city. I don't know which one, or even on what day as our schedule is still fluid. Unfortunately, Belarus is not like Russia where Americans can get a multi-entry visa for several years. So we must make the most of this expensive single entry ticket to the country because I will not pay the fees again for another visa.

Russians - the masters of visas! I know you need them for almost every country. What is the most expensive or difficult visa you've obtained? And how hard is it to get a tourist visa to America? Has anyone applied and been denied?

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