1. Opera Toilet – In Vienna, Austria, city of music and pastry I was traveling through underpass when my girlfriend at the time and I came upon the strangest toilet I have ever seen. It was a theme bathroom! The opera toilet, which cost a mere Euro entry fee, was a musically themed bathroom complete with saloon style stall doors, giant Rolling Stone’s Mouth urinals and Mozart playing in the air. I could not resist stopping and experiencing this gem of European weirdness.
2. Horse-Drawn washing machines – In Plovdiv, Bulgaria’s principle tourist city, I once saw old and new world technology seamlessly collide. As I leaned out on the terrace of the flat where I was staying with a nice Bulgarian lady, Dora, I saw a few peasants passing by our building in a horse-drawn cart. They followed a dusty trail that led past my building in a westerly direction. Although they were far away from me, I could see plainly what they were carrying-washing machines. I have seen many ghetto ways of getting a job done in Eastern Europe, like a family tying practically everything they own to the roof a four cylinder Trabant but I have never seen people hauling broken washing machines by horse.
3. Communist Party Rally – A few weeks ago I was getting off of the ferry from the European side of Istanbul to the Asian shores of Kadiköy, where I live. As I passed along the docks I notice squadrons of police in riot gear and I heard a clamor in the distance. I was both excited and apprehensive. The Turkish elections were approaching and there was political tension in the air. I positioned myself on a traffic island so that I could see what was going to happen. Soon a massive throng of people carrying banners and posters filed past where I was standing. They carried slogans in Turkish that I couldn’t read and waved their fists wildly in the air while mouthing rhythmic political slogans. They came on and on in waves. Each wave sported different colored banners and pictures of different figures. Some men I recognized were Che Guevara and Chairman Mao. Finally a large banner was carried by me with an unmistakable Turkish Communist Party emblem. The next day I was discussing this experience with one of my private students. I told him about how many people were in the rally and how many police were there and I asked him if the Communist Party was a serious political force in Turkey, to which he politely laughed.
4. Driving – Driving in Europe is a little bit like driving the bus from the movie “Speed” but having to do it on the Belt Parkway. My girlfriend at the time and I were staying in her friend Sarah’s flat in downtown Budapest. Sarah loaned us the use of her miniscule Suzuki Swift (top speed 60 mph) to drive around Budapest. It wasn’t bad driving around the old city, although some streets are narrow and driving stick after a few years lay off can be a little tricky. The really fun part of this story, however, came from driving about 60 miles south to Dunauyvaros, to visit her uncle. Hungary is a modern nation and thus has its highways like any country. The highways are completely straight, have two lanes and no shoulder. On this particular day it was raining heavily so as I set out, I was determined to keep my speed reasonable. Within a few miles of leaving the city I began seeing headlights come up in the rearview mirror. A car was approaching fast. Rather than slow down as it came up to my bumper, however, the car just crossed the dotted line into oncoming traffic doing abouth 90 mph (conservatively). I found the experience to be somewhat unnerving but given that they were passing me, all I needed to do was stay in my lane I would be fine. That is until we came upon some tractor trailers that, like all tractor trailers, were driving unacceptable slow. After some careful consideration I veered into oncoming traffic in the passing lane. I had only 20 seconds before an oncoming truck would flatten us. In the rain I maxed out the Swift’s pathetic engine and passed the big truck with little authority. Behind me an impatient Audi tailgated me with high beams, trying to pass everybody. With just seconds to make it I veered back into the right lane and the Audi passed doing roughly 100. Such is European driving.
5.Beaches and Hookers in Barcelona – Barcelona is unique in so many ways. Unlike Madrid which is a somewhat clean, modern and urban city, Barcelona is a throwback to the days of Greek and Roman expansion as well as medieval centuries when Barcelona survived on trade through the Mediterranean. Barcelona was the place in which I first saw the Mediterranean. I arrived at my hostel and immediately went to the beach. The long sandy beaches in Barcelona are really spectacular. I found a spot, dumped my crap and dove head-first into the water. The warmth of the Mediterranean rivals that of the Caribbean or Gulf of Mexico. As I got out of the water and toweled off, I settled down on my blanket. As I lay in the sun, an attractive middle-aged woman lay her blanket and possession out on the sand about fifty feet directly in front of me. This very attractive woman then proceeded to take her top off and lay sunbathing topless in the sun. Now I knew about the beaches of Spain, but you’re never quite prepared for when gorgeous, tanned European women just whip off their clothes for the world gaze upon. Another unique feature of Barcelona’s beaches are the never-ending patrols of immigrants selling beer, water and soda. In formations of two to four men, they comb the beach asking every sunbather they see whether or not they want a drink. It sounds convenient at first but trying hearing “Cerveza?” in your face every five minutes and getting sand kicked on your legs when you’re tying to sunbathe. Barcelona also marks the first city in which I was sexually assaulted. On Las Ramblas, the main drag in downtown Barcelona, the hookers abound. Most simply hiss at you, Spanish hooker lingo for an invitation for sexual congress on a cash basis. Some will come up and offer you their services politely. They can be persistent and seem to be offended when you don’t want to go off for a good time. Mind you there is no temptation to go off with these women, they are overdressed and over made up in a futile attempt to disguise the bags under their eyes and bad skin from being drug addicts. Well one night I was coming from an ATM and was thus on the side of the street and not the safer traffic island in the middle when I found my path suddenly blocked by a coterie of prostitutes. I reached for my wallet and cash to keep from getting robbed when one of the ladies of the night stepped forward and proceeded to put her hand down my pants. I was speechless as I tried to make my escape and while she kept saying “Vamos.” I finally managed to quite literally extricate myself from her clutches and scurry up the street like a school marm who had just been goosed. I confessed the experience to my fellow travelers back and the dorm and the guys all assured me that it is a quite normal experience in Barcelona. Ah, the nights in Spain!