Odessa was our final city to visit in the USSR. The “Jewel of the Black Sea” was rundown. Its outsides matched my insides. I took pictures at an open-air market, and nearly had my camera confiscated by a couple of bored guards. They accused me of taking pictures of dirty baskets. I snapped back that they were wrong, and that their mothers were sad because they had idiot children, and they laughed and let me go. I think they were expecting an easily cowed tourist, and what they got was an annoyed and peevish 20-year-old who had learned several useful Russian curse words.
That night we saw a Russian circus, featuring mangy lions and tiny Pomeranian dogs and dancing bears. There were Cossacks riding ponies at full speed shooting flaming arrows through hoops, dystopian clowns and folk dancers who danced with each other and then with the bears. One of the bears escaped its restraints that night and lumbered into the audience. The whole audience surged backwards in fear, but the bear only wanted food and was quickly lured back to its place.
The next day our group split up, each van taking a different route back to Amsterdam where we would meet in a week and fly back to the States. My van drove through a flimsy border consisting of a simple gate and a sleepy soldier who waved us into Romania. We didn’t even need to show our exit visas. Romania has gorgeous green hills, narrow roads and small villages. We visited Dracula’s castle — technically Vlad the Impaler’s castle. If you lack gruesome images that will keep you up at night, Google how that real-life nightmare got his nickname. Old pointy-teeth seems mild in comparison.
We hopped on the road at twilight to head for Budapest, which would be my favorite city on the trip. We filled the van with gas but about 20 kilometers later, the van coughed and died. It was getting on towards dark, so we pushed it off the road and camped for the night. The next morning, we pushed it back up on the road, and waited for help. Eventually a man on a cart pulled by a donkey trotted up the road. Using sign language, as none of us spoke Romanian, we understood that he would send back help. We laid around by the empty road another hour or so, until an ancient Yugo came along. It was driven by a kid who looked all of 10 years old. He hopped out in a business-like way, pulled a plastic tube out of his pocket and stuck it in the gas tank. He then sucked on the end of the tube, until the gas started pouring out of the tank. It was sludgy and gross. He then re-filled the tank part way with the diesel he had brought with him, waived off our attempts to give him money, smiled, did a cartwheel, and drove off. Bemused, we got in the van, and it started up just fine. Bad gas.
Budapest was bustling and the Magyar language was unique to hear – for Game of Thrones watchers, Dothraki comes close to spoken Hungarian. Two cities, Buda and Pest, with the Danube flowing between them make up this remarkable place. We managed to find a campground near the train station. The boys were going to head up to Poland via the train as there were rumors that Lech Walesa would be speaking at the Gdansk shipyard and they felt it might be a historical event. They turned out to be right. However, I and the two Rebeccas needed a break – we were headed to Vienna and Sacher Torte. The plan was to pick up the boys in Prague. That night we all ate at a café on the Pest side of the river, in a castle that had stood since the 11th century. The Pest Buda Café has been serving traditional fare for a long time. It was an amazing meal, starting with Schi, a delicious cabbage soup, then on to Chicken Paprikash*, served over thick homemade egg noodles, ending with Chocolate Mousse cake, and lots and lots of Pilsner and strong bitter coffee to wash it down. It was Soviet prices, so the whole meal came to about $1.50 each. We stuffed ourselves, and stayed so long we helped do the dishes and then stayed drinking some more while the owner pulled out his guitar and his wife her accordion and played gypsy music. I can still feel the wooden bench and the damp of the castle walls and the joy of that remarkable night.
We just stayed up and in the morning, poured the boys onto the train. We girls walked around the Pest side of the river for most of the day, and got camping supplies before heading out. After another unremarkable border crossing we drove to Vienna. It was overwhelming being out of Communist-held territory. So many choices, so much food, and freedom. No one watching what I was doing, where I was going. Until it is lifted, you don’t realize the mental drain that comes with constant nagging fear. The Rebeccas and I had a wonderful 2 days in Vienna. We saw the Lipizzaner stallions perform. Mostly we wandered around reveling in being free, and eating. We washed our clothes at a laundry instead of a river, took a hot shower at the camp ground, drank clean water out of clean glasses. It’s the little things. As the time ticked down to when we would once again cross into Soviet-held territory, I felt my world closing in again, but there was no help for it, the boys had to be picked up. The Rebeccas and I dragged our feet as we went to the Embassy to pick up the visas and drivers papers we needed to re-enter the Soviet Bloc and finish our adventures.
I elected to be the “chauffer” for the final visas and driving permits we obtained for Czechoslovakia and East Germany, which meant I was responsible not only for the van, but for the actions of the people inside of it. We were hearing that the trains out of Poland were standing room only so the boys would be too tired to drive, and I was pretty good on flat ground with the stick shift. This decision was going to have huge and dangerous ramifications for me later at Checkpoint Charlie in East Germany.
To be continued…
· 2 to 2 1/2 pounds of chicken pieces, preferably thighs and legs
· 2-3 Tbsp unsalted butter
· 2-3 large onions chopped
· Black pepper to taste
· 2-5 Tbsp sweet paprika, preferably Hungarian
· 1 teaspoon cayenne
· 1 cup chicken broth
· 1/2 cup sour cream
Egg Noodles, cooked.
Salt and pepper chicken, and brown in butter in a large frypan and set aside. In same pan, sauté onions until golden brown. Add spices, and then stir in the chicken broth. Place chicken on the onions and cover, simmering for about 25 minutes until chicken is cooked through… you can go longer, like an hour if you like your chicken falling off the bone. Remove the chicken, and stir in sour cream and some salt to get an amazing sauce, put the chicken back in and serve over hot egg noodles.
Photo by J. Kenji Lopez-Alt