Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Illegal aliens?! - US!!

September 29, 2009 Today started off as just another beautiful day here in Poland. We were driving along one of the back roads - stopping at villages to take pictures of farmers with horses pulling wooden carts, women in dresses with headscarves raking straw in the fields, and all the other sights that an American would find interesting. Paul was following another car slowly through a village, when two police men waved us over to a parking lot. What could be wrong? We weren’t speeding or tailgating. The officer, in limited English, identified himself as a border guard and asked for our car registration papers, passports, Paul’s driver’s license and his International Driver’s license. Uh, oh. The International Driver’s license was in back in our hotel room. No problem (whew). The guy seemed really nice. But then the two officers started looking at all the stamps in our passports. Back and forth they kept flipping the pages, stopping and then flipping some more. We realized that they were looking for our entry date into the EU. Before we came to Europe we had looked at length of stay requirements on a Tourist Visa, but had seen several lengths of time on the internet; and in the end, just figured it didn’t really matter. Were we legally here for only 90 days or 180?!? I guess it really did matter now. We sat nervously watching from the car. Finally one of officers came over and asked, “You cruise to Portugal May?” “Yes”, we said. He started to get really serious at that point. Our hearts started beating faster. Was it 90 days? Had we overstayed the Visa? Did it expire at the end of August? Were we going to get deported??!!! Paul said, “We were in Russia in August.” “August,” he repeated, “OK.” He went back and said something to his partner. All we thought we understood was “Roosha”. Good enough. He handed us back our documents and we were on our way.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Searching for the Family

September 17, 2009
When my mom asked me to look for family genealogical information in Germany, I was less than enthused. How much fun could it be looking through old books and microfiche for names of people I had never meet? The first problem we had was when we pulled into Hesel , the town my father’s family had come from, and asked about our relatives; only to find out we were in the wrong town! It turns out there are two towns named Hesel not 30 minutes apart. I had heard all kinds of jokes about people from this region of Germany, Ostfiesland – and I was beginning to understand why no one wants to be from there. But when we arrived at our Hesel (notice how quickly I have claimed it), I was excited to see that the little town was beautiful. The solid brick buildings and houses were cared for and the yards were immaculate. On down the road in Reepsholt, where the ancestors were all married, baptized and buried; the story continued. We drove to Colnrade, a couple of hours south, to find the hometown of the relatives from the 1600s. It was also a beautiful, tiny city placed right in the middle of the corn fields; with friendly people, brick streets and sidewalks. I have to admit that I had expected houses in poor condition, if not ruins. Somehow I was feeling proud that my family had come from such prosperous places.
Now we were off to see my mother’s hometown of Lienen, two hours further south. Would I be ashamed of that side of the family? Oh, no. The old center of town was full of half-timbered buildings all renovated and converted into restaurants, shops and hotels. The Tourism Office suggested we contact Dr. Wilkens, a retired pastor and the town historian. He shared with us great stories of the village in early 1800s when our family had lived there. After a quick look at his own archives, he was able to pinpoint the exact house where our family had lived. We were happy to see that it is now enjoying a second life as an Italian restaurant.
The whole search into the past would have been great, if it hadn’t been for the little upstairs apartment we had rented in Lienen. Unfortunately, the eaves of the old house didn’t allow for high ceilings throughout. To leave the bedroom, we had to step down two steps to the bathroom and living room areas. Well, the ceiling had a large wooden beam right at the top of the first step and two out of three times Paul stepped out of the bedroom, he would crack his head on the corner of the beam. After four days, the top of his bald head looked like a tic-tac-toe board – and the Xs were winning! So much for medieval living.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Spying on Russia

September 8, 2009
It’s hard to believe that I’ve just visited Russia. I guess I never thought I would go there – not after the way we were brought up thinking of Russia as the Enemy in the Cold War and all. But we had the chance to go and really didn’t know what to expect. Some things were probably not unexpected – the way very few people ever smiled or seemed cheerful, the row and rows of government block housing, the wide streets with few cars. But there were lots of surprises – we had two days of sunshine in a town that only has 68 days a year without rain, people seemed to be pretty well dressed, we didn’t see one beggar, we did see guys on the street that looked exactly like KGB agents (have we seen too many movies?!), the streets were clean and we saw foreign restaurants, including McDonald’s, Pizza Hut and KFC.
Because Russia, unlike any of the other countries we had visited, requires a visa ($250 per person) for Americans to enter their country; we opted for a guided tour, which provides a waiver for the requirement. We contracted with Red October, a tour company that was highly recommended by other cruise ship passengers, rather than take the tours offered by our ship. We were supposed to meet our guide, limo driver and four other people for the two day tour; but when we arrived, we found out the other four had cancelled. At first we were worried about the price, since it was supposed to be split six ways, but our guide, Katya, assured us that our price would not increase. Wow! We were going to have a private tour for two days with our own guide and driver. Incredible! We wound up doing a whole bunch of things that weren’t on anyone’s schedule, since we could move as fast or slowly as we wanted. We even made stops at a grocery store, picture stops, and visited an outdoor market. Fantastic!
But for us, the best part of the whole experience was going to lunch in a private apartment with our guide. When we arrived, we saw the entry door to the building and thought we were at the movie set for the movie “Borne Supremacy”. Katya rang the intercom and we went in the steel door, up five floors of concrete steps (no elevator) with exposed plumbing and wiring and arrived at another steel door that opened to another door 6 inches inside, both with several dead bolt locks.
The woman inside, our hostess, couldn’t have been more welcoming. She had prepared a table in the living room – we sat on the couch and she and Katya sat on chairs. We had a salad of red and green peppers with oil and vinegar, followed by a lovely cabbage and potato soup. To drink we were served filtered water (from a machine she was very proud of), orange juice and generous shots of vodka. Our main dish was fried chicken fillets with boiled potatoes, followed by a dessert of hot tea, cookies and chocolates. We felt honored to have had the chance to visit her home and she proudly showed us every room.
We spent two days visiting gorgeous gardens, museums and palaces. Oleg, our driver, was quiet and professional and Katya was one of the best guides we have ever had. We’ll always remember our visit to Russia with love.