Tag Archive for 'Greece'

Bulgaria

Having checked the map, I’ve realised that my trip-to-be isn’t really Eastern Europe in as much as it is Central Europe. And the term ex-Eastern Bloc is so passe. So let me start again: Greetings from the ex-commie bastard countries, before they turn into capitalist prick countries! Oh, I am excited!
The doctor ordered I stay in Greece another 10 days to recover, since my last blog posting. She could feel my anger, and did not charge for the session. The next visit, although better, she said I needed another month to fully recover – on top of the previous 25 days I had, locked up in Athens with rare glimpses with the outside world. Fearing for her life, she said it should be okay for me to leave. The next day, I was on a train north.

St Alexander Nevskis cathedral

Orthodox Christian iconography, at the big mother of a church in Sofia. Love them. And so does the Vatican, which sells them – the churches may disagree on doctrine, but they both know what sells well

So what to say about Bulgaria? The women are ridiculously hot (even the store mannequins looked good); the country is ridiculously cheap (and apparently, those two facts are not mutually exclusive, as I explain below). And I have never said the word “ridiculous” so many times, to describe a country.
I spent two days in Bulgaria’s capital – Sofia – and four in a former capital – Veliko Tarnovo. Sofia was pleasant; VT was great but could have been 10 times better if it wasn’t raining. We spent two nights hoping it would clear up, and I had to spend another night there because my bus to my next country broke down on the way. Unfortunately the day I left was also when it started clearing up, but I figure I will explore the country another time.

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Managed to get some pictures on my last day. The castle at Veliko is built on one of the three hills that the city sits on.

I enjoyed Sofia because it was bustling with people, had chic areas to hang out, and I had trouble trying to spend my money – always a good sign! In VT, despite the rain, I had some good company. I had met two British kids – Lydia and James – in Sofia, and said to meet them in VT. Although they left the day before me, they arrived at the same time and found me as I was walking to the hostel in VT, with a taxi driver that had no idea where they wanted to go. ?Ѭ? was wondering why it took them an entire day to get here, and they explained. In Bulgaria, like in Albania, they shake their heads sideways for ‘yes’ and up-down for ‘no’. Put simpler, the opposite to the rest of the world. So when on the bus the previous day, they asked the bus driver if the current stop was VT. He shook his head sideways, to indicate yes. The kids read it as a no. And so they spent the night on the Black Sea resort of Varna, a few hours from where they had originally planned to be.

Although it was raining, Lydia and James – who had met one week earlier but looked like a married couple together (something I think a lot of travelers can relate to when traveling alone) helped pass the rainy days with me. Lydia with her slapstick humour and James with his political incorrectness, wit, and political incorrectness. We found this amazing restaurant and we would eat there all day whilst laughing. On more serious discussions, James and I would reminisce the good old days of the British Empire, and how good the times were with slavery. James and I realised we are also a compatible writing team, as we discovered when writing an entry in the guest-book, and we are currently brainstorming a book we promise to write for the growing travel market. The book is called “Islamic Jihad on a shoe-string” or how to blow shit up on the cheap, for the budget traveler. I think we may have cornered a niche market here.

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The food was unbelievable. And ridiculously cheap: this dish cost about Five Lev or Three Euros. Also, they iron the tables with table-cloths when re-setting. Maybe that is what Sydney restaurants are missing?

Bulgarians look different from the rest of the people that inhabit the Balkan peninsula. Like the Serbs, there is a hint of Slavonic blood in them, but their unique look is obviously more dominated by other tribes. There is obviously some Thracian blood in them, but there is also a Turkic central-Asian look, from the Bulgar tribes that migrated in the 7th century AD. They have this characteristic round look, as in round face – like a teddy bear face. Having said that, there is also the sharp nose, sharp face look. Either way, they look different. And on the highly charged issue of Macedonia, I have to say the Macedonians do look a little different.

Sofia is located near the Republic of Macedonia’s border. It was picked as capital, because of the wishful thinking that one day Bulgaria would be reunited with “Western Bulgaria”, with Sofia as the capital in the middle of the country. Bulgarians claim the neighbouring Macedonians are actually Bulgarians, that speak a dialect of Bulgarian. I personaly find the Macedonians to be a little more Slavic in appearance. Either way, it’s a hotly contested issue. Maybe if the Bulgarians learnt how to move their heads for yes and no like the rest of the world, there wouldn’t be such a communication problem when discussing senstive issues like these? I was very confused when talking about the subject.

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Veliko is bu?Ѭ±lt on these hills. It was a strategic city, as it lay on the Rome-Constantinople road.

Bulgarians are very pro-Russia. In fact, when most of the commie bloc countries in the north where trying to get out of the Warshaw Pact, the Bulgarians voluntarily asked to be a part of the USSR in 1973. Whilst cheap Vodka may have something to do with it, the “we love Mother Russia” view is probably also due to the historic relationship with the Russians, where the Russians liberated the Bulgarians from the Ottoman Empire in 1878.

Russian church St Nikolay

Russian Church, built by the Russian Ambassador in the 1800s. They reckon he thought the Bulgarian Orthodox Churches spooked him, so he needed some Real McCoy Russian spritual protection

Squashed by the Byzantine Empire, supressed by the Ottoman Empire, and ‘liberated’ by the Russians – the Bulgarians are slated for joining the European Union in 2007. People don’t seem to understand why, nor care. The owner of the hostel at Sofia that I stayed at, reckons Bulgarians don’t have a deeply rooted culture of democracy. The concept of being an independent state isn’t a concept they understand. Whilst they are very proud of their culture, they are not so proud about their country. He reckons Bulgaria needs to be ruled by someone, because they don’t know better themselves.

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Sofia city centre.

Turbo folk music seems to be popular, music that has swept the Balkan states. I was told in Serbia, everyone hates it but it seems to be popular in Bulgaria. The girl at the VT hostel hates it as well, saying it is a bit like American R’n’B music with cars, naked girls, and sex. My Serbian friends claim it is nationalistic propaganda music. With short skirts and girls, I think I now understand how propaganda works.

And finally, a funny story. Was taking pictures.

St Alexander Nevskis cathedral

Actually, this picture to be exact

And a young man in a business suit asked me for the time. Then, he gave me his business card. It was too funny to refuse the card.

Medical control!

"non stop"

The card he gave me. Notice “non-stop”, ” medical control” and the generous discount.

Unfortunately, that is all I have to say. Blame the rain. Currently in Turkey and lovin’ it.

Party month

Judging from the amount of e-mails, text messages, and smoke signals I have received in the last month, from the standard “where are you now?” to the more dramatic “are you still alive?” I think now might be a good time to update my blog. Before I continue, this entry has nothing much interesting to read about travel destinations, and it purely is directed at my friends who are getting narky at my quietness.

So what have I been doing in the last month? After Paris I caught the bus down to Barcelona, with my friend from Australia, Max. We were there for a week, and we basically got drunk, slept, and ate kebabs in what seemed like an endless cycle. The cycle was as such: get up at post-noon, go to beach (or watch the cricket), hurry back to the hostel for Happy Hour which started at 6pm (two litres of Heineken for three Euros). Chat up some fellow hostellers, usually girls, and end up at some random clubs with those girls, drinking more beer, bourbon, and shots of, well, alcohol of some sorts. My memory gets hazy at that stage of the night. On alternate nights, we would do a pub crawl, the only difference being we went to five separate establishments in the space of a very short time. The three Euro Happy Hour Drinks and the chatting up of girls still featured prominently. As did the haziness.

I reached my fifth day in Barcelona, and said: “Hey Max, you know we haven’t seen anything of this city yet?” To which Max would reply: “True that, brudda”. It wasn’t until my final day there that I actually learnt how to orientate myself, and took some pictures of the place! So what did I think of Barcelona then? Well, it had a great night life!

Streets in Barcelona

I didn’t really like Barcelona when I first arrived, and neither did my sister who had left with her Contiki tour the day I arrived. If you spend just a day in Barcelona, you probably wouldn’t either, as all you would see are the dirty ghettos, the legless beggers and the shady juveniles with rat tails, eyeing you out. Barcelona is a city you need to feel to appreciate, in which you need time to realise. Its nightlife, relaxed pace of life, and general atmosphere: Put simply, Barcelona is a cool city, and it definitely ranks as one of my favourite places so far.

As my deadline to Greece approached (to meet my friends on the islands), it was time for me to move on. Our wallets and livers couldn’t handle any more, either. My plans with Max changed a bit: I wanted to see some of Rome before I hit Greece, and Max had a bit of thing with one of the girls we met. So Max went west with Dominique for Madrid and beyond for the following month, as I headed east for Rome. Although all roads lead to Rome, I was not arsed going by bus, and these two girls I had met heading the same direction actually found a flight that was cheaper than the ferry (and the bus). However my arrival in Rome wasn’t as smooth as you would expect. Basically, I nearly missed my flight, smashed a glass table at a cafe, and witnessed a gay-sex orgy in a toilet cubicle in Rome. It was the craziest 12 hours of my life. If I wasn’t so doped up on antibiotics, I might have the temperament to tell you the story. But I don’t.

Hilarious day

I spent close to a week in Rome, of which I spent only a few of those days sightseeing, as I had to do some trip planning for my Eastern Europe trip (visas, et cetera). Did all the main sites, and really enjoyed Rome. Rome is like London an imperial city, rather than a cultural city like Paris. Went snap happy with my camera there.

The colloseum at night

From Rome, I caught an overnight train to Brindisi. I made sure my booth lights were off, so that people would walk past, and I could have the booth to myself and the other guy I shared it with. Later, that guy, turned on the lights. Three minutes later, a family consisting of a nagging mother, a grandmother who stretched her feet right out, a hyperactive little girl who kept stepping on my feet as she ran in and out, and another little boy in the carriage whose presence just annoyed me, took over our carriage. Oh, and the little yapping dog, right at my feet. I wanted to squash that little shit. Needless to say, I didn’t get much sleep that night.

A friend was in Lecce, about an hour from Brindisi. I went down south with Enza and friends in what is the heal of the boot of Italy, having an awesome few days. My first day, at the beach we experienced an Italian airshow, with helicopter drops and race boats. Absolutely amazing. The next day, we went to this place that has an underwater hot-spring, which Enza and I managed to get a photo of (not easy!).

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I ended up missing my bus. As the next bus left in three hours, it also meant I missed my ferry.

And so, for therapy, I jumped off a cliff.

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We even managed to get Enza to jump off.

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Whilst Emmanuel and I kept trying to find higher and higher cliffs to jump off.

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The next day, I didn’t miss my ferry, and finally reached Athens. Reminiscent of the train journey, I had found myself a nice piece of carpet upstairs from the main lounge area. Rolling out my sleeping bag, with the other 50 people there, we started to sleep. And then, the disco music started – the lounge had a hidden disco floor. And it lasted until one in the morning. All the women on the boat, walked pass, peeking enthusiastically. Eventually, a bunch of 14 year old American girls hit the dance floor, which made me realise that girls learn to dance by imitating Britney Spears and Christina Aguilira, until the develop their own style. I hope they develop their own style, because they suck at imitating. The boys of the group tried to pathetically break dance, but that was at least funny. Not so funny, was this guy metres away from me taking pictures of the girls, and with a dirty paedophile grin on his face.

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My stop in Athens was a quick pit stop, before I was to hit the Greek islands of Mykonos and Ios with some school mates of mine. My partners in crime where Andy Perkes, Matt Butcher, and a friend of theirs that has become a mate of mine now as well: Dave Fraser. After about five days, we did it again in Ios, meeting up with a group of Monte and Riverview friends of Perkes and Butcher. That first night, there was absolutely no accommodation, and the only thing available was a patch of dirt ground, at Far Out camping. There wasn’t even an awning to cover everyone! Lucky for me, my little sisters Contiki tour had another two days here, and so I crashed in her room.

All the girls and some of the guys (we became a group of 12 now) reasoned they would rather go to Santorini, and book a place at Ios, ready for them as there was nothing available on the island. Well, anything acceptable by their standards. We didn’t agree, and stayed behind, and so a group of us six boys, rented out dog kennels (that is what they call them, and that is exactly what they are- human dog kennels). Had an amazing time.
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I left the guys on the 13th, as I had to be at my mum’s villages for the August 15 celebrations. Her village is deep in the middle of the Peloponnese – the highest inhabited village in the Peloponnese, and the fifth highest in Greece – and the August 15 celebrations is a huge church-related festival around Greece. This year was even bigger for my family, because my parents, as well as my brother and his wife and baby daughter, had flown up, to be with me and my little sister, along with all my cousins and aunties. There were 17 of us!
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After that, we went to the Greek island of Zakinthos. I was sick now for a little while. The doctor there abused me for letting it get out of control, whilst in the meantime, nearly everyone on the trip caught my virus, including my baby niece. We didn’t enjoy Zakinthos because it was so windy and busy, but we had a nice time nevertheless. We are now back in Athens, and I am recovering, with everyone slowly getting better as well. Went to another doctor, and was diagnosed with a minor bout of pneumonia, so my sickness is being treated a little more seriosly. I think I could strangle my mother and aunty is their mothering.

So where to next? Well basically, it is entirely dependent on my health. The doctor said I was not to move my arse for 15 days, as well as giving me medication, of which I have experienced every single side effect. I have been planning a trip around Eastern Europe and the Middle East, but now I have to do some replanning. Either way, hopefully the next time you hear from me, it won’t be in Greece!

So as I get back to the world of haemaphrodites (“Middlesex”, by Jeffrey Eugenides – worth reading), hope you are all well, and as soon as the doctor says “go”, I will begin my adventure.

Nagging wife countries

Salut!

I’ve just spent the last two weeks visiting my sisters and traveling through Western Europe – the countries I have desperately wanted to avoid on this trip of mine. I call them the nagging wife countries, because I know that one day, I will be back visiting these countries when I am older, richer, and with a nagging wife. Hence me wanting to spend the least amount of time here.

So what are the nagging wife destinations? I spent a few days in London, visiting my two sisters, and seeing my new baby nephew. I left a few days before the bombs thankfully, and arrived in Amsterdam on the 4th of July. I spent three nights there, followed by a night in Rotterdam. I then moved onto Belgium – two nights in Brugge and one night in Brussels, followed by a night in Luxembourg and four nights in Paris. I leave tonight for Barcelona with my former workmate Max from Sydney, whom I have been hanging out with in Paris these last few nights.

I won’t talk about London because apart from a few typical tourist pictures and a gay pride march I stumbled on (absolutely hilarious) I didn’t do anything in London. The only noteworthy event was how much of a bitch the immigration lady was! Well, I suppose I deserved it. Basically, I arrived in London with 10 pounds in my wallet, no bank statements to prove I had money, no return ticket to Australia, and no outgoing pass to prove I was leaving the UK any time soon. The interrogation was just short of me getting in the nude and having a cavity search! In 20 minutes, the immigration lady learnt more about my sisters, myself and my trip than a girl would find out on the first month of dating! I managed to convince her to let me in the country, but only on a one month visa rather than the usual six months. When she said that, I said good because I didn’t want to spend more than a week in her bloody country. That did not go down well either.

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Amsterdam was quite entertaining. The city was not just flooded with tourists in the every-damn-type-you-can-find, but with American college students, stoned off their face. Watching people thinking out loud, on how to find their way home, should be listed as a tourist attraction. The smell of camel shit was omnipresent, and Amsterdam as an attraction, isn’t anything special. Sure you have the “coffee” houses, the prostitutes in the windows, the live sex shows, the sex museum, and Anne Franks house.

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Oh, and there are a shit load of bikes.
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But once you see all that, that’s about it. Contrast that with Rotterdam, a major city in the south of The Netherlands. The city was bombed during WWII, and so everything had to be rebuilt from scratch. So as you can imagine, the architecture is super modern. Words don’t describe it- just check out the pictures! (But don’t confuse it with Brussels, which also had some funky buildings).

Old harbour

Whilst I was in Serbia, I met this Dutch guy, and he said if I ever come to the Netherlands, to give him a buzz and he would put me up for a night. And that I did! Bas is a top bloke to hang out with, but he also is an important person: he is doing the testing on the back wings of that giant new Airbus plane (A380). So if you ever hear of an A380 falling out of the sky, blame Bas! And blame me for having a big night out with him the night before he did some testing! Bas wrote a nice lttle summary of what I did with him, which you can read here.

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Bas and I have this common interest, or rather obsession, over Serbian women. So naturally, part of our conversations were about women, and how unattractive they are in this part of the world rather than in that other part of the world. What Bas says about The Netherlands is exactly what I say about Australian women. As Bas said, sometimes he can’t tell the difference between a man and a woman on the street! Readers of my blog will notice I constantly talk about the women I see on my travels. Well I make no apologies for that. Blame the cave man in me. But secondly, I find it fascinating to see how the crux of our civilisation – relationships between men and women – are so different in these different cultures and have such a huge affect on society in general.

Bas also reckons the Euro had a large impact on the Dutch ‘no’ to the European constitution. The problem was threefold. First of all, just like in all of Europe, the changing of prices was just rude. For example in Greece, a newspaper cost 100 Drachmas. One Euro was valued at 350 Drachmas. But that newspaper was valued at one euro, or 100 cents. Everyone just did rude maths for simplicity. Secondly, shopkeepers raised their prices just before the introduction of the Euro, which the Dutch are hell annoyed. But even worse, is now that the Finance minister has just confirmed that when the Dutch currency, the Guilder, was replaced by the Euro on Jan 1 2003, the exchange rate probably undervalued the Guilder’s true strength by between five and 10 per cent.

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I left Bas for Brussels, but there was no accomodation. So I caught a one-hour train to Brugge, because they had a room and my little sister reckoned it was cool. I wouldn’t call it cool, but it was nice. As well as another three-million tourists. Brugge is described as a classic medieval city suspended in time. Now don’t get me wrong, there are some pretty churches and rabid dogs on the street, which make me feel like I am back in the 1700s (because we all remember those good all days). But seriously, how did they manage to con three million people?

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I went to one church built by some dude that worked in government, and did a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and came back hoping to recreate the big one in Jerusalem. The whole church was filled with his family ensigna, and tombs to his family and whatever. Now, I love narcissism, and feel so relieved to see some corrupt government official build a church which makes me want to worship him, when in fact he was caught out with a hooker and he was bribed into building a church so that things would be kept mum. But honestly, why do three million people seem to buy this bullshit as so special? Maybe I needed a nagging wife to appreciate it.

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Brussels was cool.

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I was expecting a boring city, but the tourist area and the main part of town was extremely vibrant. The day after I went to Luxembourg, with a German kid who was bored shitless in Brussels. The hostel was booked out, and to cut a long story short, I ended up staying at a house of 17 year old girls having a slumber/camping party. And at the party, I met these guys my age, and I went to a special event techno party, dancing with sexy Luxembourgish girls, and spending way too much money. I crashed the night at one of the guys I partied with, and then came to Paris, to be greeted by Max.

Paris is apparently the third most expensive city in the world (after Tokyo and Oslo). And damn it shows – a bottle of coke at this shitty cafe-restaurant outside our hostel cost 4.50 Euros! At the same time, nothing can be compared to Paris – it is the most amazing city I have ever been to, and you need months to explore the place. You turn the corner, and see this building decorated in stone in the most intricate detail that you wonder how they could have ever achived that. And thats just some random building on the corner. Then check out the one next to it!

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Did all the main tourist sights, and had a big night for for Bastille day. Even bumped into three kids from my school days – David Beamen, Jill Davidson, and Pip Johnson. And separately, met up with Aaron Rathmell. Went to Versailles for a day,and just spent half a day lazing in the gardens which were amazing.

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Paris was described by a girl I met as a very sexual city, and I totally agree with that. Crazy vibe. But I am dying of heat right now, so I will end this post, promising more interesting posts once I start my Eastern Europe trip.

Macedonia

This is driving me nuts. I have just spent the last hour or two going through my e-mail, and my Internet-cafe neighbour is having cybersex with some Arab. Actually, I think he is in Turkey, but she has been showcasing some Arabic words. She started with teaching him Macedonian – yelling “da! da! da! (yes! yes yes!) – and now she has mellowed, calling him her ‘lotus’ and asking “why has this happened to us, I want to be near you. Honey” whilst smoking a cigarette. Think of a phone-sex line, where there is a fat woman on the other end moaning and groaning. Except this girl isn’t fat – just ugly. And really loud. Really fucking loud. Damn it, I did it. I tried to not swear in case any kiddies are reading this, but I feel some much better now. FUCKING SHUT UP.

Okay, much better.

Ohrid. Pictureresque.

Macedonia has been quite delightful (Greece get over it – I am not calling them Skopje, or the (Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia). I got in Friday night, and tomorrow morning (Wednesday) I will be leaving my temporary home for the last few days, in Ohrid. Ohrid is described as the tourist Mecca of Macedonia. Lots of Churches here as well, which goes back to Ohrid’s historical importance. It is right beside Lake Ohrid, which is approximately 2-3 million years old, and is one of the world’s oldest lakes and the Balkans biggest. Given its age, there are a lot of unique biological aspects, like that freakin’ animal that sounds like a baby laughing. It took me half an hour to work out it came from the lake.

“I love you honey. I. Love. You” Can someone please get this girl a vibrator?

Ohrid is a great tourist destination. The Old Town looks like any modern cosmopolitan city’s shopping arcade, with the latest fashion, jewellery stores, and cafes and restaurants abound (although funnily, about 90 per cent of these restaurants either have ‘Pizza’ in their name or make it a focal point of their menu). It is very scenic with the surrounding hills, and the lake. But the best thing is the cost of living: my first two nights were in a fully equipped private apartment, which cost the equivalent of 10 Euros a night. My remaining three nights were in a private room in the Old Town, for about six Euros.

And then there was the food. You could eat yourself silly and not want to think about food and drink for another 24 hours, with just 10 Euros. A main meal, like lets say – Pizza – costs about 100 Denars. My Hungarian Goulash tonight cost 150 Denars (60 Denars to the Euro). Add a few drinks, and a salad, and you could pay 300 Denars (five Euros) and be very satisfied. There are high-speed internet cafes all over the place, asking for one Euro an hour. Why I am so surprised, is that although the cost of living is comparable to Albania, the place looks every part like a modern European city (unlike Albania, which is a permanent pile of rubble and construction). And minus the foreign tourists; whilst plenty of Australians come, they are all ethnic Macedonians. I stood out like a sore thumb with the locals. I would like to think it’s because I am a good looking guy, but I think it’s just because I looked so different to everyone. Although I must admit, the women did tease a lot…

Yes, it is true. The women here are beautiful. And they definitely know how to shake that arse. Apologies to all you feminists out there, but if you are wondering why you are 35 and still can’t find a husband, maybe you should learn from your Slavic sisters when it comes to style. Unfortunately I have been told that I missed out this year – the fashion this year is tight jeans with stomach showing. Last year it was mini-skirts with g-strings showing. Just as well I came this year – I had enough trouble trying to conceal my grunting at the glamour?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s walking past me.

Chruches. Everywhere in Ohrid.

However for every positive, there is a downside: the men. Absolute scum bags. Not all, but a lot of con artists. I was seen as a walking money bag. You would as well, if you worked a minimum wage job in any developed country! The problem, as everyone would complain to me, was the economy – which I suppose is why Eastern European countries and the Balkans are famous for these con-artists, as their economies are still a mess. Half the people I spoke too dreamt of one day leaving – however the other half were very proud of the country. I think my second landlord, was the most eloquent in explaining this to me.

Nikola is a 38-year old university graduate (in economics), working for the police as an investigator. Actually, he was in a team of six that was selected by the US state Department for anti-terrorism training, so this guy is no monkey. He has three kids, and a modest house in the Old Town, where he rents the top rooms for some extra cash. He, like everyone else, said the economy was very weak, with no developed export markets and no opportunities for work. The wages are super low – Natasha, a girl from a tourist office, was telling me she gets paid 200 Euros a month. Eljah, a pimple-faced 18-year-old tax driver whom I used several times as my personal chauffeur, says 200 Euros is a lot – he said he averages about five Euros a day.

However unlike Natasha and Eljah, Nikola realises this is just temporary and is willing to sit it out. “Every country has problems at different stages. In this age for Macedonia, it is the economy”. He sees it as a temporary phase as the country develops itself. However what we both agreed on was that Macedonia desperately needed to be part of the European Union (EU) for that ‘phase’ to ever pass. However with the French and Dutch rejecting the new EU constitution these last few weeks, it might mean it will take longer than hoped. (It will happen – as Nikola said, the EU has become too strong to just disappear now.)

I become very fond of my afternoon chats with Nikola. Despite the fact he hasn’t used English since primary school, I could feel his English improving by the minute, as we used sign language to have conversations about global imperialism and the rise of India and China (and America?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s future), as well as what Macedonia needed to do to get ahead. If anyone was watching the time when I was saying Macedonia needed to look at emerging industries, not old economy industries such as biotechnology against agriculture – I think they would have died laughing. How do you explain biotechnology to someone who doesn’t speak English?

Macedonia is a fairly small country, with about two million inhabitants. The country gets bullied around by its neighbours because of its size, and its economic dependence on countries like Greece. However the economy is the only bad thing about this place, and it is only bad if you want to live here. If you want a holiday, I highly recommend Ohrid. It is four hours from Thessalonica in Greece.

As for my experience in the country, it has been okay. I went to a nightclub on Saturday on my own, which was a little weird, because I have never been to a nightclub on my own. I had to pay five times the normal cover charge (like I cared, it was only five euros). I met some girls there who were very playful until the drunk mafia guy came. He was a Melbourne-based Macedonian, and he had a gun on him. He got me free drinks, so I wasn’t complaining. However, I wasn’t arguing with him either.

Macedonian flag

But I have had enough being the rich tourist amongst all the other tourists, I have to get out of here. I better go and pack my bags – my bus to Nish in Serbia leaves in just over three hours!

Update:Who would have thought, that a 5am bus trip to Skopje (transit point for Nish), would have me sitting next to a tall, blue-eyed, blonde-haired, beautiful woman who was super intelligent and from a wealthy family (a rare thing in itself in Macedonia)? We got cosy on the bus and spent three hours talking non-stop! But the reason I am including this update is because she was able to explain something to me which finally helped me understand a major issue, and which I think deserves to be included on my posting about the country.

Macedonia is now being divided into two versions – traditional Macedonia, and the Albanian Macedonia, whom refuse to integrate into the local population, and adopt the country’s traditions and culture. There was a big war in North Macedonia in 2001, and a treaty was signed. We are not talking about some petty differences here. There are some huge tensions, which I sensed, but didn’t understand. The war is still recent memory, and it doesn’t seem like the issue is resolved. Something bad is brewing.

There is a a lot of racism in the country over Albanians. Why you may ask? Well it is not the Albanians that have settled and adopted Macedonian life, but the refugees and illegal immigrants that flooded the country during the Kosovo war. Ethnic Albanians now constitute about 20 per cent of the population, and have become such an influential group, that the country has to accommodate for them. The Albanian language just recently became an official language of the country, and various other measures have been put in place, which quite rightly, are making the population quite angry. As Karolina lamented, she feels like she doesn?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢t know what her identity is. To get a pubic sector job, she is required to learn an entirely new language! It is a bit like the Hispanic situation in America, where all these illegal immigrants that crossed the border from Mexico, have become such a powerful minority, that the politicians are scared of them. And like the Spanish kids, they refuse to speak Macedonian and speak only Albanian.

To cut a long story short: we haven’t seen the last of the Balkan wars. The South of Serbia, and the North of Macedonia will be on our television screens in the near future.

As for Macedonia’s economy, she was also able to explain a few things to me as she is an economics student. It appears the country is trying too hard to satisfy EU requirements to become a European Union member – rather than actually make any efforts to develop the country itself. It seems like pretty much all of Macedonia’s problems, stem from the former Yugoslavia. With respects to the economy, what she meant was that all the industries and factories were in other parts of Yugoslavia – not present-day Macedonia. The result was that the disunion left the country with an inheritance of nothing.

Albania

Benjamin Franklin once said: “Certainty? In this world nothing is certain but death and taxes”. Well, I have another two certainty’s to add to the list: Japanese tourists are everywhere, and cab drivers are scum bags worldwide. But rather than complain, I want to tell you the stories I heard for this enigmatic country.

I have just spent three days (and two nights) visiting Albania. Whilst I was only there for a short time, I was satisfied in what I learnt, and absolutely fascinated. I stayed in Saranda, which is a port-city at the south of the country, near the Greek border. It is opposite the Greek island of Corfu. I stayed in an area called “exsamilia” which means ‘six miles’ – the six mile stretch of land under Saranda, which ends where Corfu starts. Deep rural territory! The south of the country is very Greek influenced, and I had to rely on my Greek for the entire time of my trip. Not only has Greek always been popular in the South, but some one-million plus Albanians (and that is a conservative estimate) have lived in Greece for some period of time. The people I stayed with, fled the country when the Iron curtain finally fell in 1990, and like so many others, recently returned to begin a new life.

Albania is one of the world’s most misunderstood countries – and I emphasis the mis-understanding of its people. Until 1990, it was a communist country run by the iron-fist of Hoxha (pronounced”Hodja”), as first-secretary (pronounced “dictator”). Access to the outside world was completely shut off, and Hoxha created a country that was so similar to George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four that it sent a shiver up my spine. His death in 1985, which is still being lamented, led to the country becoming the last domino to tumble in Eastern Europe’s communist downfall.

Under Hoxha’s rule, organised religion was banned. The entire population was spread out into small villages, with freedom of movement prohibited, even to the next town. Agriculture was collectivised. People were paid a daily wage of 200 Lekke, with no one in the country receiving more than 500. Young men served in the military, for I think three-years, and had to do nine-days annually again to retrain them with new weapons and methods. The country was turned literally into a military state, as there was a constant fear that Albania’s neighbours would invade. Cinema’s were available, but forget about love stories: the only movies shown were ones that where with the party line, namely being war. Television was first introduced in 1970, as an outlet for the governments propaganda. The 'bunkers', which served As entry points into the nations underground tunnel network
A tunnel Network connects the entire country, with small-domed bunkers dotting the country side for entry/exit into the tunnel networks. You would see these bunkers in the most remote, unpredictable areas.

If you criticised the regime, you were done for. If you forcefully pushed a woman in any sort of form, good-bye you. There was no crime, no criticism. Everyone lived like one big family. People felt safe; however they would wet their pants when I would ask about the Secret Police. It seems old habits die hard – such was the fear in the country.

Despite what people think, there was democracy. Polling booths opened at 6 and closed at 6.30. You could vote for anyone you wanted, as long as they were a legally recognised political party: which for all that time, was only the communist party. Election results for the communists always turned out to support it 99.98 per cent of the time. The other 0.02% were grandmothers who dropped their glasses. Although even if there were opposition candidates, I would not be surprised if, by their own free will, a majority would vote communist. They had been convinced to be happy with what they had.

As I said earlier, a daily wage consisted of 200 Leke. With 300 Lekke, you could buy 15 kg of bread, to give you an idea of the cost of living. To pay off your debt to the government for living in an apartment, you simply had to work one day a month. Theoretically people worked eight hours a day, starting at 7am, although most would doze off, clocking a few hours and spending the rest of the day chatting. They worked seven days a week. There were opportunities for entertainment, and there were no restrictions on procreation! But with such work hours, no one stayed out late. In fact, if you were seen out past 12am, you were in trouble. You would be criticised as being lazy and against the country, and you would be put in the prisons. To this day, no one knows what happened in those prisons.

When foreigners would come into the country, or Albanians studied abroad to help with a skill shortage, they had to get their story right before they came in. They were told to tell everyone that the outside world is a mess. There is no electricity, clean water, pure lawlessness. They were told to say Albania was one of the luckiest countries in the world. Given that Albanians had no contact with the outside world, is it any surprise Hoxha is treated like a god?

In 1990, the communists were ousted. The country basically turned into a barbaric society of lawlessness. In 1997, over 70 per cent of the population lost their savings in pyramid schemes, which resulted in nationwide uproar. Groups broke into the military barracks, and guns were stolen. There was open street warfare on the roads. People would shoot at someone, just for the sake of target practice. As such, in 1990 and 1997, you saw a large majority of the population spread to neighbouring countries. One guy I met left with his friends in the winter, and trekked through the mountains to get to Greece. It snows a lot in winter in Northern Greece. But they were desperate.

Having been to Greece several times since 1990, I grew up with the Greek racism. That they were cunning, thieves, and no-good people. I believed that to the day I got into Albania. Even though I don’t like to think of people as unequal, I just always had this perception that Albanians were scum. How wrong was I! And how wrong is racial tension in the rest of the Balkans, where Albanians are shunned. I have never in my life been treated with more respect and hospitality. Although I had a negative experience with a taxi driver when the bus dropped me off at the border, that was only because he over-charged me – but this was more a case of my inexperience as a first time traveller rather than him being a bad person.

Everywhere I went, people would shout me drinks. Even my taxi drivers! On my way out of the country, I had to catch a bus for Corca to Progradec. During that one hour or so, I sat next to a middle aged Albanian man. He did not speak English or Greek; I did not speak Albanian. So we had a conversation purely with sign language. He knew ten words in English which helped, however four of those consisted of “I don’t speak English”. Once we got off the bus, he insisted I go to his house for a coffee. There his son, who spoke English, could translate. They then told me, after ten minutes in the house, that they would drive me to the Macedonian border in the wife’s brother?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s taxi, free of charge!! I saved about 10 Euros, as well as the hassle of trying to find transport to the border. Who would do that in Sydney?

At no stage, did I ever feel unsafe, or disrespected. In fact, everyone took a genuine interest in looking after me. The people I stayed with literally treated me like their son. The people I met along the way, were extremely worried about the next stage of my journey without their help. They would go out of their way to help me. The only thing I was worried about, was trying to work out the right-fare for a cab fare, but I only had to worry about that once, at the beginning. The cost of living is incredibly cheap there – I was told I was ‘ripped off’ by this restaurant at Saranda: I paid the equivalent to five euros, and was absolutely stuffed!

A lot of the young hate communism. But the old, or rather people 35+, think of the old days with nostalgia. There are two reasons for this: poverty, and security.

For people born in the communist state, that knew of a country with complete security, harmony, and equality. When capitalism and democracy came in, they saw lawlessness and inequality. Young girls who previously could walk around the country in perfect security, have been poached for prostitution around the Balkans. People are living in extreme poverty, and are being forced to fend for themselves. We may find it absurd how people like them prefer communism and totalitarianism over capitalism and democracy, and yet we need to see it though their eyes: their experience in being ‘free’ has turned their country in an anarchy. What so free about not being able to feed and protect your family?
The inland landscape during my bus trip

Albania has got the cleanest water I have ever swum in. It also has the most beautiful inland landscape I have ever seen. My bus trip took me along roads I didn’t think roads could go, along mountains. Imagine two mountain ranges, separated by a valley 100 metres wide. And in that valley, a stream and sometimes river would run, with the ground completely covered in farm land. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to take great pictures because the bus was moving, and when I realised I should take a picture, we had already passed the best bits. It really was breathtaking.

I think Albania has got massive potential. Not just as a tourist destination however. During communism, religion was banned. Organised religion is one of the biggest set backs of modern society, because it was a form of control imposed by empires 2000 years ago. The traditions, hatred and history constrain us to this day. As an Orthodox Christian, if I was to marry a Catholic Christian, my family would despair. In Albania however, if you are a Muslim, and you find a person you are happy with who is Christian, you have the full blessings of everyone. Whilst spirituality is an important part of the human dimension, organised religion should not be separating us. Despite Albanian’s economic problems, and inexperience in democracy, I think they are an advanced society, whereby all citizens are genuinely equal. In fifty years time, we will be seeing them as a model.
A mosque and Church, recently built as they were all demolished during communist days, standing near each other in perfect harmony

The elections next month are on everyone?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s minds. Whoever wins, people are predicting that it will be a hung parliament. The feeling with people is that the centre-right New Democracy party needs to win, to give the country stop steps forward, rather than backwards, as the communist party is doing. These elections will be the crucial thing to see whether it take 5 or 50 years for Albania to get itself together.

I am currently in Ohrid in (the Former Yugoslav Republic of) Macedonia, the tourist Mecca of the country. It really is beautiful here, and I am still experiencing, so I better get off this computer and find some English speaking locals. And as they would say in Macedonian, “ayde ciao!”.

Mykonos

Damn, I had a good time.

I just got back from a few days in Mykonos, which I suppose is the Greek island that defines “Greek islands”. During the summer, it is known as a party Mecca and gay Mecca. However in May of each year, all the university students from Greece come down and let loose, before the main tourist season starts. I went with one of my cousin’s boyfriends and his mates, getting all the student discounts as well – although it still cost an arm and a leg. Not that I cared though, because we just happened to pick the weekend that all the philosophy, theology and arts students came down – courses with 80 per cent women. After four nights there and five days, I have got a migraine from the sensory overload. Looking at beautiful women all day is tiring! I must say it has been the best practice I have had in speaking Greek and building my fluency!

Space Club
Greece is unrivalled with their nightlife, and I suppose the Greek islands give non-Greeks a taste of that culture. On Saturday night, I was forcefully dragged out of one of the clubs we went to by my group of friends at 8 in the morning. And it was still packed. On Monday night, the night before we left, we found a club to sit down and kick back at about 3 in the morning. At 4am, it was wall-to-wall people. Even though the club was forced to shut down at 4 (or was it 5?), I reckon the people there would have carried on well into the late hours of the morning, because it felt like things had only just started. Having said that though, they were clubs filled with Greeks and not tourists. The picture is of Space Club, which is huge. That was 4 in the morning on Sunday night, whilst the Scandanavian club was quiet at about 2am

Mykonos is a great island because it is only 88 square kilometres – meaning the people are centralised either in the ‘hora’ (the capital) or Super Paradise beach (amazing). However the advantage of Mykonos is also its most annoying aspect – how well organised they are for tourism. To get anywhere, you need to catch a bus which costs one Euro. To get to super-paradise beach, you need to get a boat that costs five euros (bus can’t go down the road). You don’t think about it, but in one day, you’ve already spent 10-15 Euros on transport alone. That’s about 20 AUD. Now let?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s add food, accommodation and alcohol, and you can understand why it can be so expensive, if you don’t watch yourself.

However we discovered something very interesting. The place we were staying at normally cost 35 Euros, and 55 Euros in peak season per room. However the landlord probably only sees about ten of those Euros, with the rest going to agency fees! Because she can’t be bothered hanging around the port haggling people, she does it through the agency. I think there are a few lessons in what I just said.

An interesting aspect of Mykonos is how is caters for all the different types of tourists. Opposite the shop selling 10 Euro necklaces, was a 16,000 Euro watch. Accommodation can cost 2000 Euros a night – or the 10 I will be paying in August when I go again. There are beaches – both the kind you party on, and the kind you have peace of mind on – as well as wine shops, all different kinds of food outlets, and the like. I was impressed. It was a bit like you walking into a shop to buy a present, and the person says “how much do you want to spend?”. The difference being, the present you are buying is for you, and it?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s an experience you won’t forget.

In other news, Greece won Eurovision. Are people congratulating her? Nope, the poor girl is being condemned. I think the quote that sums it all up, is the grandpa wannabe who said she shouldn’t be wearing such a short skirt next to a raised Greek flag, because the only thing that should raise in those situations are men’s penises. It is quite pathetic actually, and I just think its talk-show hosts who have nothing else to talk about. If they are outraged with her skirt, head to Mykonos and have a look what some of the women wore ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú or didn?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢t wear. And as for mixing sex with Greek identity, why doesn?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢t grandpa head to tourist central Plaka in Athens, and buy the most popular tourist item there ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú karma sutra ancient Greek playing cards, or my favourite, an ancient statue of some guy with an erect penis. Classy.

I am frantically running around now trying to get myself organised. Okay, I am taking it easy to recover, but I do have a lot of things to do. After two months of “vacation”, I am now going to do some genuine “travelling”. My sister Victoria gave birth to a big little boy, and my little sister Dora is going Contiki in July – both are in London. So I have to get there as soon as possible, but I figure why not do it overland via the Balkans. Next destination: Albania.

Athens

Since my last post, I?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢ve done three things: sleep, eat, and talk about going back to sleep or what?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s to eat. The day I got back from Istanbul, I left for the mountains in the Peloponnese, for Greek Easter – which is a huge event here in Greece. About half the Greek population moved to Athens 30 years ago, but their parents all come from villages, and so there is a mass-migration for a weekend every year. My mothers village, which has a permanent population of about 50 (49 as of yesterday), swells to a few hundred during Easter and the August 15 celebrations. It?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s certainly a fun time, especially considering it’s predominantly a young crowd now.

Since the Easter celebrations, I stayed in the village with my uncle?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s family that is based up there (and in the regional capital, Tripoli). The idea was that I take it easy because I was still trying to get over my jet lag ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú let alone the Anzac trip which just made me more tired. Unfortunately, I didn?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢t get to relax as much as I hoped. This was due to my little cousins ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú one is ten, the other eight ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú who expected me to play games with them all day. And when afternoon siesta time came, or the later night-time sleep, they would snore. Actually one night when I shared the bed with the elder Theodore, he karate-chopped me. It was on the neck as well, which kind of hurt (they are both Tae-Kwon-Doe students). It was also at about 4am, just before the neighbours pack of eight dogs started barking at five in the morning. Sorry, I meant those eight fucking piss-stained shit-coloured imbred dogs started barking, at five in the morning (and every morning thereafter). Don?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢t get me started on the rooster.

I spent my week doing that, before I returned to my other Uncle?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s family home, in Athens and where I am basing my entire trip from. The day I returned, we went out for one of my (Athenian) cousin?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s birthday (all three girls are aged 20-25). In Greece, the person who is celebrating has to shout drinks for the people that are there. i’m lovin it. Having spent a week doing animal noises to entertain the kids, it was time to have a few drinks and kick-back. I thought I only had a few drinks, but my cousins swear they saw me pouring myself a few extra drinks, and a few more on top of that. Either way, whatever I drank, it was a hangover that lasted well into the next night.

One week on, I have been sleeping, eating, and talking about going back to sleep or what?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s to eat. I am sleeping 10-12 hours a day, and if it wasn?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢t for food, I would sleep more. So I hope you don?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢t mind, but I am going back to sleep now. Good bye.

Istanbul

Sleep has been a very important concept for me in the last week. Very important. Just as my body had adjusted to American time, it then had to adjust for Greek time. And to make things more fun, I caught a 6pm bus from Athens that arrived 1.30pm the next day in Istanbul. The smelly illegal immigrant from a Black Sea state next to me, felt my pain, and spent 18 hours sleeping and hugging me whenever the bus turned. Four hours later in Istanbul, I was on another bus, to Gallipoli. At 12am I arrived, only to spend the next five hours trying to keep my body from freezing until the start of the Dawn Service (you can read a less whiny post on my Anzac experience here).

The bus trip back to Istanbul was the sweetest sleep ever. Somehow, I sleptwalked my way from the bus to a hostel. And then I was happy.

Istanbul is a great city, and it is completely over run by Aussies and the odd kiwi fruit. The Turks love Australians, and we are being treated like a bit of a novelty. I had a day in the city because the next 19 hour flight (bus drivers in this part of the world seem to think buses are a perfect way to practice for pilot school) doesn’t leave until tommorow, which was great: I finally had the chance to spit on Doge Enrico Dandolos grave (don’t worry, I did an extra one for you as well).

Next destination is the “village” in motherland Greece, deep in the footholds of the Peloponnese, to celebrate Greek Easter.

Athens to Istanbul

Amused myself by trying to throw things in this guy’s mouth

Athens to Istanbul

These guys did not know each other. I could not wait for when they woke up and found out they had been sleeping on each other.