Friday, August 22, 2008

Odessa Nights

A couple of days poking around Odessa . . . is enough for us. We picked up some great history about Odessa's Jews from a personal tour of the Migdal Museum, and from a walking tour of Moldovanka, the Jewish neighborhood where my grandmother's family likely lived. (There are still 25,000 to 40,000 Jews in Odessa.

As illustrated in the stories of Shalom Aleichem and Isaac Babel, Moldovanka was a colorful place, founded by Moldovan farmers outside the city limits of Odessa but quickly transformed into a tax haven for smugglers. The Jewish Hospital there, where my great-grandfather probably worked as a nurse, covers many acres and is still in use, though quite decrepit. It's scheduled to be knocked down next year in favor of a new facility, which no doubt is much needed. It does not look like a good place to be sick in now.

In late August, though, Odessa is mostly a beach town, with lots of explosed flesh, much of it singed by the sun. The weather's been very warm, but the beer's been cold. We are ready for the U.S. of A.

See you all soon.
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Thursday, August 21, 2008

The Finish Line

We made it! Our last day, from Chisinau to Odesa, took 13 hours and 114 miles across three hilly countries. There was absolutely nothing between Chisinau and Odesa -- a couple of gas stations and a couple of borders. We hit the one restaurant in between for lunch. Finally, after 70 km of hilly and hot Ukraine, we powered into beautiful, leafy Odesa. Above, our final destination: atop the famous Potemkin Stairs with the Black Sea in the background.

Our day started at 5 am in Chisinau, Moldova, a country best described by the following license plate:
After a room inspector checked our room for cleanliness - at a hotel! - we were fined three dollars for dirty towels. It was a cool, crisp ride through the ongoing Moldovan hills, until we hit a settlement of temporary buildings: the infamous Transnistria border.

Transnistria is a ridiculous pseudo-country which declared independence in 1992 from Moldova but isn't recognized by any other country. It holds a strategic position, being very skinny but very long, which makes it hard to travel east-west in the region without passing through. This basically boils down to a silly border experience powered by bribery.

Fortunately, one of the big assets to being on a bike is you get to skip the long lines at the border. We rolled in, were interrogated by a likable army officer who asked us if we had porno mags, then were encouraged to give him some beer money. We did so; he refused some of our smaller Moldovan denominations. From there, the immigration officer took me into the back room where he requested a tax for the "office." I showed him the eight dollars I had on my person; he insisted on $80/person. We found middle ground by dumping off some old Romanian lei on him.

From there, we hauled ass through the country. Dusty, hot, lots of military, nothing much to see. Witness me beside a glorious Transistrian tank!

The border with Ukraine was also pretty silly - after skipping the line, I was taken to the back room again, where a Transistrian border official drew a map explaining that it was impossible to go from Moldova, through Transinstria, to Ukraine, and that we were missing some critical passport stamps: "big problem!". I said I was willing to give it a go; they requested a "present," so I gave them a torn $5 bill (which the previous border agent wouldn't accept). The Ukrainian guys let us through in five minutes.

After refueling on the Ukrainian side of the border, which featured some adventures in ordering food off a Cyrillic menu, it was a hot, hilly ride to Odesa. However, the Ukrainians plied us with charm and free fruit. The watermelon man here kept trying to give us more slices.

A few more hills, and we were there. Nothing beats the last five miles pedaling into a major city -- the energy grows, the adrenaline fires, the miles melt away.
Odesa - not bust!

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Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Off the Grid in Transylvania and Moldova

Lots to catch up on. We spent most of three days with the indefatigable Albert Kozma (in Hungarian, Kozma Albert), the minister of the Unitarian Church in Magyarsaros with whom Matt made contact through means too tortuous to recount. That's Albert and Matt bracing the maple-leaf flag sent by Magyarsoros' partner church in Victoria, BC, as we honor all things Canadian. The Magyarsaros Church dates back to the 13th century (yup, you read that right, though it was RC for a few centuries), and today has a bell tower from 1600.

The first day with Albert was a combination of Unitarian history and an introduction to Romanian roads from the inside of a car driven by a true Romanian driver. Albert is definitely in the top decile of drivers in this land; he makes the impossible seem commonplace on the roads. We viewed the church in Turdu (unfortunate name) where King John Sigismund proclaimed Unitarianism in 1568, as well as his crypt in Alba Iulia. We picked up some perspective on the king's conversion process. Instinctively, I have thought of the event as a victory for enlightenment and wisdom, which is certainly part of the story. But the king also managed to pick up all of the land previously controlled by the Catholic church, as well as the lands owned by nobles who declined to convert to Unitarianism. Think Henry VIII of England and the Anglican Church. Also, when the Unitarians took over all the churches they tore out the artworks, which is still somewhat resented as a form of vandalism. Interesting to look at things from another perspective.

Then there was the day honoring Albert's father, also Albert (actually, he is Albert IX, our Albert is Albert X, and his son is Albert XI; the Kozmas are serious about the name Albert). His father was retiring as minister of the Bullon Unitarian church (spelling?), so we caught the ceremony, the party, and the after-party party. The second photo is of Kozmas, in addition to us -- Rosie (Albert X's sister), Albert IX, and Ericka, wife of Albert X. We had a great Sunday morning breakfast with the Kozmas listening for the different calls to worship in the town: the Unistarian bells, the Reformed church bells, then the Orthodox drum (!), and bells. The Kozmas were amazingly hospitable and warm -- and are now friends.

Next day we were off for more sightseeing and a train ride to Iasi ("yash") on the Moldovan border. The Romanian train stacks up well against anything Amtrak has to offer.

Yesterday was a long day in the saddle. We rode for 85 miles from Iasi -- 55 of them were in the correct direction! We crossed the border into Moldova and swiftly discovered a serious flaw in our guidebook from Lonely Planet, which describes Moldova as "flat as a board." WRONG, WRONG, WRONG. We scaled two giant hills, one paved and the other, well, let's just say that there was a team meeting halfway through a "shortcut" as to whether to turn back because of the wind, rain, mud, and general uncertainty as to where the hell we were. The power line, the team noted, ended right there. The team, however, followed the message of the Pete Seeger song ("Waist deep in the Big Muddy, and the Big Fool said to push on"). We passed through two towns that I would swear were in the Borat movie, and finally found pavement again.

Because of some misinformation that led to our erroneous travel, we had to stop for the night in Calerasi. This was, it must be said, a new low in hygiene and food opportunities. I will go light on details, since today we checked into the finest hostelry in Chisinau, washed our clothes, and had a major lunch.

Tomorrow is the Big One. We go from here to Odessa . . . or bust. Hold us in your thoughts.
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Thursday, August 14, 2008

1 AM Snapshot from Transylvania

Cold kicking it in the Rev. Nagys car (in his driveway) as he blasts and sings along with the Hungarian band Omega, which sounds like a cross between Pink Floyd and The Who. This pic was taken after a substantial helping of homemade wine, which the good reverend makes in the cellar.

Today, obviously, is a day off the bikes.
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Wednesday, August 13, 2008

In the Heartof Transylvania

We set off from Cluj-Napoca yesterday, and (amazingly) it felt good to be back in the saddle. For about ten minutes. Then we hit the 3-plus mile hill out of Cluj, which involved major traffic. It was a long pull up, then a terrifying run down the other side, on a major four-lane road. It was a pleasure to get to Turdu, which is otherwise a pretty grim industrial town, because the road shrank to two lanes and the traffic slowed enough to allow jumpy cyclists (e.g., moi) some peace of mind, even on a very warm day.

We have found the hills of Transylvania -- three more after the pull out of Cluj. Somewhat contrary to expectations (that whole "sylvan" thing in the name), the area is not heavily forested. It reminded me a bit of the Scottish highlands, with hills that looked a bit scalped. The agriculture also does not seem as intensive as we saw in Poland and Hungary, though my eye for that is not particularly learned. One of our current hosts suggested that the Austrians and the Russians (most recent occupiers) made off with the timber.

We turned off the main highway after about 50 miles, and made our way to Dicsoszentmarton (Tirnameni on your Romanian map), to the partner church of our home Unitarian Church, Cedar Lane in Bethesda, MD. We were greeted by the minister, Endre Nagy (in Hungarian, they put the surname first, but I have flipped the names for our Western readers) and his wife Dodi, pictured above. Daughter Szilla (sp?) and her recent fiancee, Gerard, provide the dazzling English language skills that keep the conversation going. She's an aspiring lawyer and he teaches history -- a pretty good match for me. We just missed son Endre, who flew yesterday morning to California for a year at the Starr King Seminary in Berkeley.
The family has put us up with wonderful grace and hospitality, which has included good Hungarian food and excellent wine made at home by the good minister. (Every seminary should have wine-making in its curriculum; best wine of the trip.) The talk, and the wine, lasted well into the night.
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Tuesday, August 12, 2008

A Day Off With Lingering Totalitarianism

The HelmetCam broke yesterday, so here's a teaser video - our bicycle entry to Budapest.

After five straight days on the road, we're taking a break day in Cluj Napoca, Romania, which for me has largely involved napping and minor Olympic swimming viewing. Romania is an interesting country, in that we know so little about it. Much has been made of the ultra-poor Romanian village which was the scene for Borat's hometown; so far, though, Romania has proven to be less poor than expected. Wi-fi is available in hotels and cafes; mobile phones are everywhere; the rumored terrible potholes don't exist. Though the drivers has proven to be far more idiotic in other countries we've visited, the police know that, and there are dozens of speed traps, rumble strips, and cautions to get people to slow down.

The most disappointing discovery of Romania is a big one -- the people. Time and time again we've met people who want to do the least work possible, who automatically say no to simple and easily fulfillable requests and only change course when word comes from above. Case in point: at a hotel where we stayed two nights ago, we asked to store the bikes indoors. We don't expect premier accomodations for out bikes, but where they wanted us to leave the bikes - outside, in a highly trafficked and unsupervised area - was highly stupid. Four consecutive people said it was impossible to do anything else, including a mean old fat hag peeling potatoes who flung her finger into my face and screamed at me. After finally getting the boss to understand that a) we wouldn't capitulate and b) we were going to be really annoying about this, they gave in and found a place for the bikes in the locked vegetable cellar. Reggie sleeps with the carrots!

I talked to an American ex-pat in our hostel this moning who'd experienced the same thing. He'd recently asked for tea with milk, which he'd been assured was impossible. He asked a second waiter for tea; when that arrived, he asked for milk, and got it. The first waiter provided the re-fill. It's all indicative of a simple mindset: don't take chances, don't think creatively, your job is never on the line, and try to get away with the least possible work. All the countries we've visited have been ex-Communist; Romania is the only one where we've seen this pervasive mindset. Not that there aren't helpful Romanians - we've found a few - but the majority we've met don't care much about helping people get what they need if it's outside the playbook.

A couple more notes:
-Transylvania - where we are now - does not as of yet boast the drastic views one would expect from a lifetime of Dracula cartoons. So far it looks like a flatter version of the Northern California coast. The cycling has not been nearly as steep as anticipated.
-We saw Wanted last night at the local cinema. Plenty of Hollywood magic was involved, and it's hyperbloody, but overall it was entertaining and interesting with some pretty cool stunts. 10 Romanian lei well spent
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Saturday, August 9, 2008

Rumbling into Romania

As a devotee of flatland cycling, I have to report that it does not get better, or flatter, than eastern Hungary. We covered about 200 miles in three days. In that time we ascended a couple of highway and railroad overpasses. Otherwise, flat going and some excellent highlights!

The highlights included those Hungarian thermal baths, which turn up wherever a city is near a body of water. I was a late convert to the muddy water of the thermal bath, which must be around 115 degrees, but it is a great way to end a long day in the saddle. Hats off to Hungary on those.

We also were lucky to be guests in Szegelom (rhymes with "gitalong") at the Riolit Panzic, which had no other guests for the evening. After an unsuccessful negotiation with the proprietress over prices and terms, Matt found himself going face-to-face with her son-in-law, Janosz, who promptly called his wife Christina to translate and referee. Before they were done, Matt had talked on the cell phone to Janosz's brother in Toronto, visited Janosz's home, wangled an invitation to the family's St. Christina party that evening, and secured a ride for us to the thermal baths, which also happened to be the home of about a dozen storks who had built their nests atop the lampposts next to the baths.

The party was a lot of fun, exposing us to Hungarian hospitality and cuisine -- the cuisine was delicious but, yes, a little heavy.

Riolit Panzic. Write it down. Next time you're in Szegelom.

The cycling has gone extremely well. Matt's kept us mostly off the main roads and moving in the right direction. Thursday was a perfect day -- we covered 62 miles before breaking for lunch. Friday was hot, but we hung up another 60 before finding the Riolit. Today had threatening skies, which made it much cooler and easier to travel. We got to Oradea, the first city over the Romanian border, by 2 -- but since we had crossed a time zone, it was 3 p.m. (First time zone crossed on a bicycle!) Tomorrow we will head east from here, which will include more vertical stretches. The Carpathians loom. But we'll try to shorten up on the distances and chug along.

Cycling does change one's perspective on many things. Now, when I venture onto a road, my first concern is the quality of the pavement. Most vehicles in Hungary, where some roads are less than perfect, engage in the "road surface tango," which involves finding the smoothest possible surface -- and at least missing the holes -- while also evading oncoming and following traffic. It could be a rather dull video game, sort of like Pong or Frogger. A second change is my attitude when I enter a snack shop during a ride. I am interested in the finding the most efficient calorie-delivery product that tastes good. Fruit drinks, fruit, and candy are at the top fo the list. It's simple refueling.

Oradea looks a bit tired and less prosperous than Hungary did.

I suspect Romania is a step behind Hungary and Poland in the development scale. This part of the country also suffers from the two-name problem. This trip has persuaded me that if there are two alternative names for individual places, there's been trouble in the recent past. In Poland, many places have a Polish name, a German name, and/or a Russian name. Bad history. Too many foreign occupations. In this part of Romania, most places have a Hungarian name and a Romanian name, the legacy of border redrawing after World War I, which left an undigested Hungarian minority here.

A final word on language and keyboards. One excellent thing about being in Romania is the computer keyboard where, which tracks the American version. Hungarian has 44 letters in its alphabet, including 12 vowels. (Don't hold me to those numbers; that's what a Hungarian told me.) So that means that they need to crowd a lot of letters onto the Hungarian keyboard, which moves everything around to where it DOES NOT BELONG. Indeed, the @ symbol can be found almost anywhere on a Hungarian keyboard. A small inconvenience, but entirely unexpected.

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Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Budapest: Big Boots to Fill

Budapest, I predict, will be the gem of our tour. It's cosmopolitan, it's beautiful, it's a little dirty, it's inhabited by Hungarians - who are witty and interesting and classy and cool. They are world experts in the art of finessing - witness how they stalled both the Nazis and the Commies from taking total control immediately as they did elsewhere. It's an admirable skill.

The photo above was taken at Memento Park, where the Hungarian government has assembled an assortment of ridiculous statues from the Communist era. I am standing (victoriously!) by the famed boots from the Stalin statue in Budapest. The rest of the statue was torn down in the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. NOTE: these are not the actual boots (which were also looted) but instead "an authentic replica of the original" according to the guidebook.

Here's a less-famous statue: "Pool attendant speedily returning lost towel."

We also visited St. Stephen's Basilica, which, overall, is just another big church. However, inside they have enshrined the Holy Dexter, or the right hand of King (and later Saint) Stephen, who is a major figure in Hungarian history. Look closely - his actual hand is the shriveled black thing in the house. You had to pay 100 forints, or 60 cents, to turn on the house light (as above), and there was a funny episode in which two ditsy Italian girls made extended gestures to dig out the coin from their various purses, unzipping and unclasping and digging through assorted change, then giggling and repeating, as a big crowd looked on. They were obviously used to being pampered by pathetic Italian, but in spite of those connotations I cut my losses and handed over the money, for which I was rewarded with premier standing position and a halting explanation in Hungarian describing how the entire arm was carved up between various countries over the year. I think. Anyhow, the Holy Dexter is in full force on St. Stephen's Day - August 20! - when they actually parade the dead man's right hand all over town. I gotta say, the strangeness surrounding relics is one of my favorite aspects of Christianity.

That's all for Budapest folks. Keep your fingers crossed for sunny skies and clear roads as we head inland across Hungary and off into Romania.
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Monday, August 4, 2008

The End of Atrocity Tourism, Sleeping Through Slovakia, and the Beginning of Budapest

The photos are out of order, and the last one shouldn't be there at all so please ignore it, but this post is coming from the low-tech member of the team, so I'm taking pride in getting four photos up that I intended to, even if they're out of order. All while struggling with a Hungarian keyboard that has all the symbols in the wrong places.

So, Saturday we got to Auschwitz-Birkenau -- see photo of Matt before notorious *work makes you free" sign atthe entrance. We've all been so bombarded with the Auschwitz story and the images that I will include only two of the points that struck me.
  • 70 percent of the Jewish prisoners who arrived at the camp -- really at Birkenau, which was the mass-production facility, with Auschwitz as the initial "beta" site -- were dead within two hours of arrival. So for most of the Jews, it wasn't really a camp, just a place to die. Four SS men could kill 1500 Jews in 20 minutes in the gas chambers. Teutonic efficiency.
  • The head of the camp, Rudolf Hoss, who was not the guy who flew to Scotland to try to end the war in 1940, lived with his wife and five children in a house a few hundred yards from a gas chamber and a crematorium.
Then it was back to Krakow for a final rainbow on the main square, and off to the night train to Budapest. We had decided to take a pass on biking through Slovakia. Too many mountains for this old body, and not enough places we wanted to see. After some anxiety about whether we would be allowed on the train with our bikes, we were allowed to cram them into a two-person sleeping compartment with two sweaty Americans . . . us. The photo only begins to tell the tale.

But we slept and hopped off the train at the stop before Budapest, Vac, in order to ride in along the bend of the Danube. I do mean that we hopped, since our train was too long for the platform in Vac, so we jumped down with our equipment while the Budapest-bound commuters looked on in boredom.

The ride along the river was gorgeous, then into this cosmopolitan city for a tour of the second largest synagogue in the world. The Hungarians get some credit since, after the Nazis killed 75 percent of the Jews here, enough felt comfortable coming back here that there are now more than 50 active Jewish congregations in Hungary. A contrast with Poland.

We finished at the thermal baths, a Hungarian passion. The chess game continued for the two hours we were there. With apologies to Damon Runyon, might you call it a permanent floating chess game?
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Sunday, August 3, 2008

Krakow's Krazy Kool (Relatively Speaking)

God it's good to be in a city. Once I snatched that first glimpse of Krakow from the road music rose in my chest. I sang (well, rapped profanely), I darted, I shot over tram rails, I pedaled the hardest I've pedaled yet. Finally, a destination, a glittering goal. Culture, music, energy, the English language. We roared into town in decidedly terrific moods.

Krakow's the first place I've visited on this trip that feels like Europe. The city is jammed with delightful cafes, the old town is charming and quaint, the city is ringed with luscious, aromatic parks. There are even a few sites of (minor) historical importance which we visited yesterday, including the Wawel complex and the Wieliczka salt mine (say that five times fast), a UNESCO site. There are street musicians and hustlers and huge Gothic churches. Cafes are open late; all sorts of languages are spoken. Despite what I consider to be a limited range of attractions - what are YOU dying to see in Krakow? - the tourists are out in force.

The picture above is of Polish army forces (no pun intended) celebrating the anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising, when the Poles of Warsaw fought back against the Germans under the false assumption that the Soviets on the outskirts of town would rush in to save the day. Instead, wise old Uncle Joe let the Poles and Germans kill each other for a few months, then moved in to take the depleted city for Mother Russia. It's a sad story of an uprising, but overall I've not been impressed with the Polish approach to fighting the Germans. There was no guerilla warfare; there was no steady disruption of German forces; instead they waited until they thought victory was assured. The Vietcong and Iraqis have wreaked havoc with ongoing insurgencies; something like that in Poland (and other occupied nations - hello France!) could have have a real impact on the war. Though it's easy enough to say that when you're not lodging German soldiers in your home.

Our most classically Polish experience was getting to the salt mine, which was on the outskirts of town and required a minibus ride. As we left the city, it began raining in huge gushing sheets - the spray along the side of the minibus covered all the windows. Through the melee, we couldn't read the signs, and an hour later, when we asked where we were, the driver told us he forgot our stop. We wound up going to the end of the line out in podunkville and circling back - the whole shebang took about two hours. What bothered me the most was being back on those nutty Polish country roads - I'll take my urban days when I can get them, thanks.

Here's a whipcrack accordion trio performing in the Rynek Glowny -- they were incredible, but shamefully outdrawn by the neighboring puppeteer performing Elvis songs.

And a shot of dad punishing the Polish countryside for daring to get in his way:

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Friday, August 1, 2008

We made it to Krakow!!!

After three days on the Polish roads (which were quite good, on the whole), we cruised into Krakow this afternoon, a bit sore and weary, but gratified to have made it. (We left the photo card in our room, so photos will be posted tomorrow.) We've had fabulous weather, and the countryside has been very pretty -- lots of farmers working in rich-looking fields. As for those people who insist that Poland is flat: they're not cyclists. Sure, there are plenty of flat parts, but there's also some terrain. We took a shortcut today, which actually got us where we wanted to get, but at the expense of some hills that reminded me of Western Maryland.

We've had a pretty strict division of responsibilities for the ride. Matt's in charge of navigation, repairs, and reminding me to drink more water. (I'm trying.) I'm in charge of trying to survive. It's not a fair division, but (as the Communists used to say, but never meant) to each according to his needs, from each according to his abilities.

The first day was 92 miles -- a bit ambitious. The last two have been shorter and easier to manage. Today, for short stretches, I actually felt healthy and exhilirated. It was foreseeable, of course, all this cycling on a cycling trip. I'll be a better person.

The people in Poland have been friendly, and have indulged our lack of language skills. I can consistently say in Polish "hello," "thank you," "please," and "rest room." Everything else is pantomime and slow speaking, as though that helps. I experience a bit of schizophrenia over the place. The people are gracious, but we've seen some traces of lingering anti-Semitism, which our Warsaw guide described in unhappy terms. It's hard to reconcile the two, especially since there are so few Jews around. Occasionally I ask myself after an interaction with a Pole, "What would she think if she knew I was part Jewish?"

I have been experiencing the shrinking time horizon of the cycling trip. You get up in the morning and think about where you want to get to that day. You're on the road, and think about how far it is to the next place you may want to stop, or the stork that just flew by (we've only seen two sets of storks, so far; a bit subpar). You think about whether it's time to drink some more water (like I said, I'm trying). You admire the view. You wonder about the home you just rode by, or the two little girls carrying a bucket from a berry patch (blueberries?), or the bus stop in the middle of a state forest which has about a dozen vodka models lined up, very orderly. You marvel at the truck that just whizzed by -- pretty close -- without really making you anxious. The road sign announces a new village with one more incredible arrangement of consonants and vowels -- yesterday we passed one that started "Zdz." Maybe it's time to eat something?

The roads are mostly two-laners, without a real shoulder, so you just ride in your lane and hope the drivers will be courteous, which they have uniformly been. On a few bad stretches, I have drifted towards the middle of the road, in search of smoother pavement, which is not a good habit. The drivers can deal with you so long as you just plow straight ahead. That drifty stuff can get you in trouble.

But we're off the road for a few days. We'll be here in Krakow for at least two days. We've got a room on the ring road around the Old Town, which is surrounded by a park that was created when Krakowers (?) filled in the moat. Tomorrow we're tourists again -- no longer bicycle athletes -- and Sunday to Auschwitz/Birkenau.

And photos tomorrow!
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Tuesday, July 29, 2008

A Day of Victorious Research

Czyzewo is where it all started. This was the town where my great-great-grandfather Moishe Scwartz married my great-great-grandmother Paja Rythenberg, the town my great-grandfather Joseph left from to hit the US. Thanks to our terrific guide, we now know that 3 previous generations of Schwartzes (now Stewarts) lived in and around Czyzewo. It was and is a small farming community a couple hundred km NE of Warsaw. There's not much to do there today, meaning it must have been really bad years ago. I'm glad my great-grandfather left, as he must have been bored senseless, not to mention under-employed and discriminated against. Also, there's the matter of me not being here if he hadn't left.

We had just about the best day you can in the field of genealogical research. Our guide took us directly to the relevant locations, frequently bypassing lengthy lines of cranky Poles via a mixture of Government Savvy and heavy flirtation with the armada of middle-aged lady overseers. Immediately he dialed up the original books of handwritten records: marriage records, birth records, and death records. With a tiny bit of oversight, we were permitted to paw through these willy-nilly.

First we found the marriage record for Moishe and Paja (in 1890!). From that document, which listed their parnets -- brand new information for us -- we were able to research backwards, digging up assorted marriage and birth certificates until we got back to approximately 1815, which is around when Napoleon instituted the system anyway. It was a homerun of a day.

Before this, we didn't know anything except that my great-grandfather - Moishe - lived in Czyzewo. Today I know about 15 or so more ancestors, including information about where they lived, the time they lived, and- in some instances - even their occupations. (Lots of "day workers" in there, oddly.)

I must say, there is an incredible level of comfort connected to knowing that your family came from somewhere, that they just didn't show up from nowhere. My great-grandfather came over to New York alone, which has cultivated a lone wolf image in my mind, a feeling of cultural isolation. Anti-Semitism aside, it's evident that the Schwartzes were very much part of the Czyzewo community, that they had a home.

For those Polish-speakers out there, this is the official documentation of my great-grandmother's birth certificate from the Lomza vital records office, from 1865. Wow!
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Sunday, July 27, 2008

Atrocity Tourism

Put our toes in the waters of Atrocity Tourism this morning. We started with the only Jewish synagogue that survived World War II in Warsaw, which was lovingly restored but seemed a bit antiseptic. As one of our hostel-mates observed yesterday, Poland's Jewish sites have the feel of "here's where Jews USED to live."

Then it was to Pawiak Prison, built by the Tsar in 1830-35 (not sure which czar), but best utilized by the Nazis. During World War II, the Germans imprisoned 100,000 Varsovians (people of Warsaw) there, killing an average of 20/day. That was a statistic that helped me wrap my mind around the program. Then they shipped another 30,000 or so out to the death camps. It seemed that Pawiak was not used for Jews, who were all in the Ghetto, and got shipped out separately.

All that's left of the prison are a few cells -- the Germans blew up the rest when they blew up most of Warsaw. But the cells alone were difficult. Then, on to the Ghetto sites.

The current neighborhood around the Ghetto is, well, nice. Quiet apartment blocks, pleasant trees, and few reminders of the horrors of the war. There is a large memorial to the Jewish fighters in the doomed Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943 (above) as well as another, less grandiose memorial, and a marker on the spot where German Chancellor Willy Brandt knelt to ask forgiveness for the crimes of Germany against Poland.

There's also a big memorial to the train station where 300,000 Jews from the Ghetto were shipped to the death camps, but no train station. Just a nice apartment building. Must be an odd place to live, even if you don't believe in ghosts.

This afternoon was lighter. Checked out the Royal Palace, which is very odd. The Germans flattened it (naturally), so the Communist government of Poland rebuilt the Royal Palace to commemorate a government that it despised! Go figure. We did find the urn of ashes of Tadeusz Kosciuszko, a Polish freedom fighter in the American Revolution who came back to Poland to lead an unsuccessful rising in 1791. (Photo of me with Tad, above).

Then no Sunday in Poland is complete without a stop at church. We caught the final portions of late-afternoon mass, then scampered into Sacred Heart Church to observe the site that contains the heart of Frederic Chopin.

Tomorrow, we head out of town with a guide to look into some family history sites.

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Saturday, July 26, 2008

Warsaw Warriors

We have arrived!

Lufthansa labor actions and massive jet lag have been unable to derail us. We found each other easily. Our bikes are assembled and in largely functional condition. Nobody appears to have digestive problems (yet). The hostel where we're staying celebrated its third birthday yesterday, translating into free brewskis for guests. (No, brewski isn't actually Polish.) And we have yet to get into a major disagreement so far.

Some quick observations on Warsaw: it's a quiet town. Real quiet. Maybe that's because it's a Saturday in late July and everyone's off the beach, but for the nation's capital there isn't a lot of energy. Which, on the plus side, makes for nice and easy bike riding.

Today we checked out the Warsaw Uprising Museum, which commemorates the 180,000 Poles who revolted against German control in 1944. The Poles fought back because they assumed the Soviets - who were amassed on the other side of the Vistula River - would crash in and clean out the Germans. Instead, Stalin waited for the Germans to put down the revolt and kill off all the Polish leaders, as those savvy ultra-nationalists could be trouble later. 180,000 Poles died.

The museum looked very modern, but I don't think it was that effective--I'm still not sure how the Poles lost, other than overwhelming German strength. I also found the museum very Catholic-heavy, with much greater space devoted to important clergy as opposed to, say, the Jewish situation. Then again, someone in the hostel made the point that this is really a museum for the Poles, not the Jews--who have many other memorials--and while I'm not completely swayed by that argument, there's probably some value in that. A lot of value in that if you ask a Pole.
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Thursday, July 24, 2008


Today's the day. The flight to Warsaw leaves at 11:25 p.m., and then it's under way. One way I can tell this is not really a vacation is that I have butterflies, just like before a hearing in court. There are some reasons for that.

First, our research has been productive, but unsettling. Most of what we thought we knew about my grandparents' origins has been called into question.

My grandfather was supposed to be from Czyzewo (now called Czyzew-Osada), but now it seems his family lived mostly in Wollomin and Lodz. So we're going there, too. My grandmother's family was from cosmopolitan Odessa. She always said so. We KNEW it. Now it seems they came from a tiny village 200 kilometers to the east, the Ukrainian equivalent of Nowhere (and it seems that in Ukraine, Nowhere is really far from Anywhere You Want To Be). And the village was founded by Dutch Mennonites.

So things keep changing. This is the least organized trip I have taken since 1970, I drove across the country with Rich Zweig and Bob Aldrich. Actually, that trip was better organized than this one. We're spending the first five days in Warsaw, taking some side trips to places connected to my grandfather's family. Then, 25 days later, we'll fly home from Odessa. In between? Well, you can see the map. That's still roughly what we think we'll be doing. But it keeps changing.

How many concentration camp sites do we need to see? How long do we want to stay in Krakow, or Budapest? And will this aging corpus hold out through all of the cycling? A lot of my butterflies, I think, are anxiety over the physical challenge of the trip.

So, off we go, chasing the roots of the man in the photo, my father and Matt's grandfather, Milton Stewart -- they guy who changed the name from Schwartz to Stewart. As one of his cousins recently remembered him, he was always "a man on a mission." And maybe his most basic mission was to be American in every way, something he achieved by taking on a great deal of public service. He succeeded so well, in fact, that we don't know too much about his (and our) family -- and what we thought we knew turns out to be a bit shaky.

I couldn't resist the group photo on the right, a picture of Milt at an occasion honoring the Office of Advocacy of the Small Business Administration, of which he was the first Chief Counsel. You can see where we get our fashion sense.

May the Schwartz be with you.
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Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Bike in a Box

It's real.

My bike--working nickname: "Reggie"--has been officially dismantled--the handlebars, seat and pedals removed--and packed by stereotypical San Francisco hipster bike mechanics into a nondescript cardboard box for which United Airlines is itching to charge me an arm and a leg to transfer from SFO to Frankfurt and, Airline Luggage Handling gods willing, to Warsaw. From there Reggie goes to a local Polish bikeshop, where he will be reconstructed into his normal, sturdy, lumbering self.

I've been riding Reggie for a couple of months now, and our relationship is something short of love, possibly even short of like. He weighs a ton; his gear-shifters are stupidly placed; his cables were not set correctly when I received the bike. He moves in traffic like a drunk friend at a wedding; dopey, embarrassing, and all mine to clean up after.

On the other hand, this week I've been on my road bike to work (working nickname: Bananamobile). I feel like I've been shot out of cannon, like the parachute's been taken off my back. I got my 20-minute commute down to 15, and I know for a fact I can smoke any other bike on the road. Still, everyone says that Reggie's a good workhorse, ideal for dilapidated Eastern European roads and random acts of tourist terrorism. Stay tuned for a full report.

As for having Reggie all boxed up, I've been filled with the excitement - and responsibility - of having a secret weapon waiting to be unleashed. It reminds me of the day of my 22nd birthday party, driving back from the liquor store with my roommate. The car was loaded with a keg, booze, some of the best pizza in the country, and a couple of carefree college seniors six weeks from graduation. We observed that we were a party on wheels, that ANYWHERE we chose to set up shop would be the site of indelible, incredible memories.

That night we hosted,one of the best parties I (vaguely) remember attending, ever. Here's to Eastern Europe dishing up another gem on Friday.
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Monday, July 21, 2008

Research in Many Languages

Last week I went to downtown D.C. to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, to try to do some research about the Schwartz family in Poland. So far we know what happened to three of my grandfather's seven siblings during World War II and the Holocaust. That leaves four more.

The archival research facilities at the Museum, and the support provided by the staff, are remarkable. The professional researchers there appreciate how difficult it is to track people through the welter of the 1930s and 1940s, and how many records were destroyed by war. They even provide free photocopying!

But for monolingual people like me, the project is daunting. The relevant records could be in any of four languages. A few are in Polish, from before the war. With many exotic pronunciation rules, Polish words confound me. Schwartz, for example, is most often spelled "Sczwarc" in Polish, but also could be spelled a couple of other ways. Other records are in German; some are in Russian, with that old nemesis, the Cyrillic alphabet. And the recollections of Holocaust survivors are mostly in Hebrew, which makes Cyrillic look easy!

These linguistic challenges create real misunderstanding. In The Lost, author Daniel Mendelsohn (a linguist himself) describes how his search for the story of a lost family was misdirected by his misinterpretation of a Yiddish word used by his grandfather. (There's a lot more in the book, too.)

We have already had a concrete experience of that. Our Ukrainian research associate, the first person to read my grandmother's passport who knew the Cyrillic alphabet, has questioned what town she was actually born in! This could be a long road.
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Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Clarity of the Road

I'm very much looking forward to the mind-cleansing effect of an extended cycling trip. There's nothing like steady exercise and stunning views to wash free the clutter from my head, to lengthen my media-warped attention span, to allow for deep thinking (I can't tell you how many hundreds of novel/work ideas come to me on my bike ride). To let my hands uncramp from typing all day long. To not answer the phone or deal with hundreds of emails a day. Back to basics: physical exertion, sweat, nature, family. The simple, difficult act of cranking pedals over and over again.

As you might discern, it's been a long day of work. This'll be the last inspirational schlock artwork job you'll see, promise.
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Monday, July 14, 2008

On the trail of Leiba & Jenny

From left to right in the photo, are Leiba Gorsky (my great-grandfather), Eva Schwartz (his daughter and my grandmother), and Jenny Gorsky (my great-grandmother. We acquired the photo through my dad's cousin, Ted Gordon, to whom many thanks.

These are the first images of the great-grandparents I've ever seen. Leiba was born in 1871, Jenny in 1872, both in Odessa, Ukraine, our destination on this summer's trip. They came to New York in 1908, and there are some interesting questions about that trip.

First, they didn't sail from the Black Sea, where Odessa is, but from a port on the Baltic. That means that Leiba, Jenny, and their six kids (from 15 to baby) had to cross Central Europe. Now that trip puts into perspective the bike ride that Matt and I will be undertaking!

Second, the family story is that they left because they left because of anti-Jewish feeling after the unsuccessful Revolution of 1905 (think Battleship Potemkin, the Eisenstein silent movie, which is set in Odessa during that upheaval). But they didn't leave until 1908, three years later? Maybe it took that long to save up the money? Or to figure out how to get the heck out of Russia?

There's so much we don't know -- Jenny's maiden name, what sibling Leiba and Jenny had and whether any of them left Russia? Talking with another cousin of my father's, Linda Weiss, I learned for the first time that my grandmother (Eva, with the spectacles in the photo) corresponded with people back in Odessa. Linda remembers Eva giving her the postage stamps from Russia! Who were those people?
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Sunday, July 13, 2008

Seeking Silver Linings

It can be hard to stay positive when reading about Eastern Europe's last hundred-odd years. I'm a believer in the power of positive thinking (all hokiness aside), and throughout the research for our trip I've attempted to steer the focus toward the sunlight after the clouds: nascent democracy, EU membership, cultural and economic re-awakening. After all, everybody loves a good comeback story.

Still, it's been a rough stretch. Two World Wars, the Holocaust, and forty years of Communism. Pretty much everything produced in these countries over the past century is dripping with heartache.

This week I was poking around on the website for Yad Vashem, which is Israel's Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority - the memorial to all things Holocaust. Among other things, Yad Vashem holds 2.1 million Pages of Testimony for Jews who perished in the Holocaust. I was trying to see if any Schwartzes in Poland or Gorskys from Odessa may have been memorialized by relatives who made it out. (I didn't find anything.)

Along the way, however, I clicked on the description of Odessa's fate during World War II and the Shoah (Holocaust). I'd read it a while ago, but didn't remember the details. Some choice selections:

As soon as the Germans and Romanians took control of Odessa, they designated the city as the capital of the newly-coined Transnistria region, which the Germans turned over to Romania. On October 22 the Romanian military headquarters were blown up, killing 66 officers and soldiers. In retaliation, the leader of Romania, Ion Antonescu, ordered the execution of thousands of communists. He also ordered that one member of every Jewish family in Odessa be taken hostage. The next day, 19,000 Jews were taken to the harbor, where they were burnt alive. Another 20,000 Jews were gathered and taken to a nearby village, where they were shot or burnt to death. In addition, many Jews were sent to camps throughout Transnistria.

Between October 25 and November 3, 1941, the remaining Jews in Odessa - some 40,000 - were taken outside the city to the Slobodka Ghetto. They were left outside for 10 days; many old people, women, and children froze to death.
And Odessa made it out relatively well - only 99,000 of the 201,000 Jewish residents were murdered. (Compare that to Lodz in Poland - of 224,000 Jewish residents, and another 204,000 Jews crammed into the Lodz Ghetto, 7,000 survived.)

Lots of sad stories....time for a Mel Brooks pick-me-up:

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Friday, July 11, 2008

Henryk Slawik, The Polish Wallenberg

Due to the good offices of my friend and expert on Matters Polish, Patryk Drescher, I was able to attend a screening at the Polish Embassy last night of a film titled, Henryk Slawik, The Polish Wallenberg. The reference is to Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat in Budapest who saved thousands of Hungarian Jews from the Nazis in 1944-45.

Slawik was equally heroic. A native of Silesia, in southwestern Poland, Slawik was a Socialist newspaper editor. He served in the Polish military in the brief resistance to the Nazi invasion of September 1939, then retreated with his unit to Hungary. Though the Hungarians were allied with the Nazis, they sheltered many Poles. Slawik became a leader of the Poles in exile in Hungary.

For the next five years, Slawik became increasingly active in issuing false identification to Jewish refugees from Poland. He set up an orphanage for Jewish children who escaped from Poland and arranged for the Catholic Church to sponsor it. Indeed, Slawik had help. The Hungarian authorities assisted him, and looked the other way when necessary. Sympathetic Catholic priests issued phony church birth certificates, attesting to the non-Jewish origins of many of the refugees. All told, Slawik and his allies are credited with saving the lives of more than 5,000 Jews.

He paid with his life. When the Nazis invaded Hungary in March 1944, he did not flee, but rather stayed to try to help those he had been helping all along. After four months living underground, he was captured, tortured, and killed. He never disclosed the names of those who worked with him.

After the movie ended, an embassy official pointed out that Slawik's story is not known because the Communists suppressed it for the decades when they ruled Poland. A street was named after him for three days in 1946, but then the Communists realized that he had been a Socialist, not a Communist. But for the Communists, the official said, we would be calling Wallenberg "the Swedish Slawik"!

Good enough for him to be the Polish Slawik. A hero.
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Wednesday, July 9, 2008

A Tale of Two Cities: Vote-Off

It's a tie!

You've selected Odessa (Ukraine, not Texas) and Krakow as the two cities you'd most like to visit on our tour. I would chalk this up as a semi-surprising outcome, given Budapest's billing as the "New Prague," had I not circulated this blog with the Ukrainian and Polish groups on JewishGen. Which may have distorted the vote slightly.

Either way, The Stewart Bike Trip shudders in the face of a murky outcome, so we're holding a runoff between Odessa and Krakow. Vote early and often - the options are listed in the right column.

To help you in this critical decision, I've included the funnest facts I could find from each city's Wikipedia article:

First up: Odessa, birthplace of my great-grandmother, Eva Schwartz:
According to one of the stories, when someone suggested Odessos as a name for the new Russian port, Catherine II said that all names in the South of the Empire were already 'masculine,' and didn't want yet another one, so she decided to change it to more 'feminine' Odessa. This anecdote is highly dubious, because there were at least two cities (Eupatoria and Theodosia) whose names sound 'feminine' for a Russian; besides, the Czarina was not a native Russian speaker, and finally, all cities are feminine in Greek (as well as in Latin). Another legend derives the name 'Odessa' from the word-play: in French (which was then the language spoken at the Russian court), 'plenty of water' is assez d'eau; if said backwards, it sounds similar to that of the Greek colony's name (and water-related pun makes perfect sense, because Odessa, though situated next to the huge body of water, has limited fresh water supply). Regardless, a link with the name of the ancient Greek colony persists, so there might be some truth in the oral tradition.
Option 2: Krakow, one of the oldest and largest cities in Poland, and one of the few to emerge relatively unscathed from the wrath of WWII:
Kraków remained relatively undamaged at the end of World War II.[43] Allegedly Germans planned to destroy it with massive amounts of explosives,[44][45] but according to the most popular of several versions of the story,[46] Soviet Marshal Ivan Konev, after being informed by the Polish patriots of the German plan,[45][47] tried to preserve Kraków from destruction by ordering a lightning attack on the city.[48] The credibility of these accounts has been recently questioned by Polish historian Andrzej Chwalba, who in his recent works finds no evidence for any German plan of massive destruction and portrays Konev's strategy as ordinary, only accidentally resulting in reduced damage to Kraków, a fact that was later exaggerated into the myth of "Konev, savior of Kraków" by Soviet propaganda.
Disclaimer: The Stewart Bike Trip is clearly biased in favor of Odessa on this one, as 1. it was it home to a wonderful woman who is in part responsible for our existence and 2. when we arrive in Odessa, it means we won't have to ride our bikes for at least a couple of days. Yet - in stark contrast to the history of both these nations - we value fair and free elections, so please, vote with a clear conscience and in the full spirit of democracy.
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Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Tour de Farce

A number of my friends have alerted me that the Tour de France has started up again, assuming that due to my interest in cycling and impending cycling trip to Europe I would naturally want to be involved.

I appreciate that it's really hard to cycle that hard and that fast for that long. I appreciate the thrill of the chase, the need for speed, the visual excitement of massive accidents. But, largely because of Lance Armstrong, I just don't care.

Why hate on Lance? Partly it's because I thought his book was terrible (and a really bad intra-office holiday gift, by the way), which portrayed him as a thoughtless, arrogant jerk on all levels. Partly it's because he probably cheated (though likely steroid use hasn't deterred me from buying limited edition Barry Bonds jerseys). The Livestrong yellow bracelet fad rang false to me, creating this sense that people who'd merely spent a buck on a piece of rubber were suddenly tough and altruistic, and had license to advertise it to the world. All together, not enough to disrupt my gentle television habits of Giants baseball and Seinfeld reruns.

Gently segueing away, my friend and former writing-group partner Meredith Norton recently published a terrific new memoir called Lopsided about dealing breast cancer. The book was originally titled F You Lance Armstrong, because when Meredith was diagnosed she received countless copies of Lance's book. Unsurprisingly, rather than being strong and powerful during her cancer treatment, Meredith was unable to go on five-hour weakling bike rides and instead felt, well, as if radioactive material was being put into her bloodstream. Which may be
another reason why I'm not into Lance, and not into the Tour.
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Monday, July 7, 2008

Novel Training Techniques

Rocky warmed up for his big title fight with Appollo Creed by whacking around some sides of beef in Paulie's meat locker. For our mad dash across Eastern Europe, I have to get used to hauling some extra weight around on the bike (other than any extra weight clinging to my own corpus).

The answer? A genuine pauzer-carrier, barely visible on th back of my bike in the photo above, taken last Thursday on the Monocacy Bridge on the C&O Canal trail. OK, some explanation.

The pauzer is "Tramp," a poodle/schnauzer mix. Some people call them "schnoodles," but that does not match Tramp's personality, so we call him a pauzer.

Nancy has rigged up a way to strap Tramp onto the back of the bike, and off I go with 18 pounds of squirming pooch on my rear wheel. More often, actually, Nancy takes the hound on her bike, but this is training time for me. Can't wait for it to end.

As for the less-than-cheerful look on my face? We waited too long for lunch, and I was about out of gas. Another tip for the long-distance cyclist: eat early and often.
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Sunday, July 6, 2008

JOBY sponsors the Stewart Bike Trip

While enduring another hair-pulling Giants loss v. the Cubbies last week, my pal Joel graciously added to the pile of free corporate booty to the Stewart Bike Trip courtesy of his company, JOBY. Throughout the trip, you'll enjoy stable, wiggle-free photos of me and my dad inflicting cycling dominance across Eastern Europe thanks to our brand new Gorillapod.

I've always liked the look of this thing in the store. It's very versatile - it holds your camera on an uneven surface, you can wrap it around poles/tree, bike handlebars, etc. Also, for those of you adjusting to the new California hands-free car calling law, look into Joby's slick new Zivio bluetooth headset coming out soon - extremely cool-looking and, also, high-quality (as Joel puts it, it's for people who realize their first bluetooth headset isn't any good).

Interested in sponsoring a good old fashioned father-son cycling adventure through history? Shoot me an email and let's talk: mjfstewartATgmailDOTcom.

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Saturday, July 5, 2008

Cycling picture of the year

This needs no elaboration, other than the disclaimer that this was NOT photoshopped.

Incredible, scary, ridiculous. We aim to avoid this kind of situation at all costs - though how much can you really do about drunk drivers falling asleep at the wheel? They could have hit another car, a pedestrian, a tree.

As with so much in life, on many levels this comes down to pure luck.
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