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Archive for the ‘Europe’ Category

DSC_0142DSC_0154It was up, up, and away and down and around the scores of natural towers like a magic ride through dreamland as we floated over the fairy chimneys of Goreme, Cappadocia, Turkey.DSC_0246

As our hot air balloon joined over 110 other balloons floating in the air at the same time, we all enjoyed the view from above those classic nature-made fairy chimneys of Cappadocia. DSC_0233And not once did any of the 110 balloons even come near each other as we all shared the sky over Cappadocia.

All ten of us in our Anatolian Balloon were frozen in awe viewing the many unique pillar formations with light shadows on them.DSC_0230 Floating in the balloon before, during daybreak and after daylight showed us all stages of light in which the fairy chimneys existed after naturally forming from volcano- dumped layers of ash and lava over millions of years go.DSC_0323

When our balloon came within 3 feet of a fairy chimney, we could see the deep layers of soft volcanic tuff rock topped by a harder layer. As the land eroded, ravines and crevices formed, leaving the fairy chimneys of today. DSC_0855And more fairy chimneys are being formed constantly as erosion continues on the tuff lava in the Cappadocia area.

At one point in our balloon ride, our pilot maneuvered the balloon basket such that he could actually reach out and touch a tree that only grows in the area, plucking several leaves for us to sample.DSC_0268 Included in that sample was a green 1-inch long pecan-like nut which no one chose to sample. The green leaves were sampled, however, and were very bitter tasting.DSC_0584

After about 75 minutes, the first of the 110 balloons started landing. DSC_0649And, too soon, it was time for our balloon ride to end.DSC_0557 But landing was my least favorite of a balloon ride because the first 2 hot air balloon rides ended safely but we were all in crash position inside the basket as the balloon landed with a hit to the ground and then a drag for several yards over rough ground, bushes and uneven terrain until it stopped. DSC_0515My third hot air balloon ride landed perfectly on the ground, renewing my faith that balloons can have perfect smooth landings.DSC_0446

But none of the balloons I had been on matched this ride in Cappadocia because of the scenery and landing. The pilot told us “when I say get into crash position you get down inside the basket and cover your head.” But he never told us that as we began landing.DSC_0183

Instead he said, “Prepare for balloon parking.”  And lo and behold, we landed perfectly on the balloon’s trailer while standing up in the basket watching the entire precision procedure.DSC_0690 DSC_0697It was AWESOME, PERFECT, FANTASTIC, and UNBELIEVABLE. Upon noticing other balloons landing, they also had landed on their balloon’s trailer.DSC_0739

After celebrating with a glass of champagne and receiving our official certificate and photo of the “perfect 10” ride, It was a one of a kind, most exhilarating balloon ride ever and it now ranks the No.1 best hot air balloon ride in the world on my list and hope my 5th balloon ride is also a perfect ten.DSC_0384DSC_0747

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After leaving the Tretyakov Gallery of Russian Art in Moscow, we had to walk on Luzhov Bridge over a canal that connects to the Volga River to our Tauck World Discovery coach parked on the other side. We had just finished seeing the world class Russian art works in the Gallery, so we had no idea that we were going to see another creative Russian art exhibit. That surprise was waiting for us on that bridge.

On that pedestrian bridge were three 9×5-foot trees made of iron and full of locks. These were no ordinary locks because they were placed on these trees by newlyweds on their wedding day and perhaps lovers showing their forever faith in their relationship. The locks were all shapes, sizes and colors on the many triangular-shaped branches.  And each lock had an inscription on it of the couple’s names and a comment of their love for each other. The inscriptions were written in every kind of permanent medium from paint to fingernail polish to engraving. The couple on their wedding day would go to a tree and place their lock on the tree and lock it and throw the key in the canal.

Without the key, the lock could not be removed by either one of the couple. Therefore, they agreed, the marriage could only be ended if the key could be found in that canal.  And, if the key was found, the lock could then be unlocked and removed and the marriage could then be terminated. And if the key could not be found, the marriage shall be forever.

But, the three trees were loaded with so many locks that there was no room for any more.  Luckily, two more lock trees were on one side of the canal but they also were loaded with locks of all shapes sizes and colors. So to help alleviate the overload problem, the unknown “tree keepers” periodically added more trees and removed locks so that more can be added. Now the permanent romance promise can continue and married couples and those in a relationship can continue to show their forever love for each other.

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The Transylvanian (Romania) road from Dracula’s Castle split into a triangle junction that contained a small park.  A quaint pair of horse-drawn two-story wagons rested there. Their horses grazed lazily on the emerald green grass under the shade trees while several people lounged in the upper story of their wagons. “Roma, or what we call Gypsies,” our Romanian guide explained, are “nomadic people who traditionally live in two-story wagons. The upper story is their home while the lower story is for business.” So, we were very surprised to see what the guide had just described to us that morning had suddenly appeared.

The Roma, as they prefer to be called, emigrated in the 1300’s from India. While many remain nomadic, more and more are living in homes provided by the tolerant Romanian government. We passed a government-built neighborhood that looked like a giant hand had stamped-out hundreds of small houses set close together and enclosed by fences to keep Gypsy life separate from the rest of the Romanians. These neighborhoods fit the traditional “satra” lifestyle of the Gypsies – “living close together without privacy.” But, traditional to the Roma way, each family individualizes them to stand out in the crowd.

The few wealthy Roma own huge “mansion homes” complete with metal or clay castle-like turreted roofs. These edifices serve not only as homes but also to flaunt the wealth of the owner. The Roma live in only one or two ornate, flamboyant, and colorfully furnished rooms, leaving the remainder of rooms empty. From the outside, no one knows that most of the house is empty.

An estimated two million Roma comprise 10% of the Romanian population, although the actual Roma population is unknown, as they don’t declare their children. Children are used from a young age as beggars and pickpockets. Parents use no birth control, and the saying about them is, “if a child needs a bath, make a new one instead.” As our Tauck World Discovery Danube Riverboat tour went on a daily land excursion, we passed numerous children bathing in a drainage ditch, so we were not surprised that families of 10 – 12 children are common and that some children eventually bathe.

Roma children attend Romanian schools, which includes a free breakfast to improve attendance.  Many still do not attend school, perpetuating their high rates of illiteracy and poverty.  Large portions of the children in Romanian orphanages come from Roma families who can’t afford to keep them.

Roma children marry at age 13 or 14.  Girls must be virgins for these arranged marriages. The girl meets with the boy’s family to see if they can marry and, if so, they live together. A Roma boy can marry any girl, but a Roma girl can only marry a Roma boy. The bride receives a gold necklace with a gold coin from the groom’s family in recognition of the marriage, and everyone celebrates with a party where the family’s homegrown wine and food is served and music, singing and dancing abound. On the other hand, to divorce, the husband says one word three times and the couple is divorced. Our Romanian guide didn’t know that word.

Since Gypsy traditional dress is unavailable in “off-the-rack” stores, the Roma make their clothes.  Women wear many-layered dark-colored long skirts with many pockets.  Men usually wear all black — shirt, pants, and large-brimmed hat. Sometimes there is red or colored trim on the shirt or there is no hat. When it comes time to wash the clothes, male and female clothes cannot be washed together because clothes worn below the waist are considered unclean, especially the female’s. And to wash bad luck away, rural Roma wash clothes in a flowing river.

Many of the Roma people have jobs as skilled bricklayers, copper workers, and gold sifters. Some of the top musicians in Romania are Roma, like Gheorghe Zamfir. But many also have odd jobs, including begging, cleaning restrooms, fortune telling, and street sweeping.  Most Roma live below the poverty line and struggle daily to survive. They compete among each other, and the wealthier Roma do not associate with the poorer Roma. Still, they believe in getting along and being honest with each other. Their high rate of unemployment, welfare, illiteracy, and crime are some of Romania’s big problems.

The Roma have two designated seats in the Romanian Parliament.  The Roma also have their own government, consisting of a king who lives in France and an emperor who has no power. Elections are held every two years among the Roma. King Cioaba sets the rules and regulations the Roma follow. While I was visiting Romania, the newspaper pictured the emperor’s release from prison and his Zorroesque departure on a shiny black horse. The Romanian government then fined him.

In World War II, the Roma and other Romanians were sent to concentration camps. Communism was rough on the Roma, as their needs were ignored and they were not recognized as a separate ethnic group.

The Roma adopt the religion of their resident country since they have no ethnic religion. They honor the Black Madonna and have a small alter with the Black Madonna at the entrance of their dwelling. The Black Madonna is an image of Mary that has darkened through the centuries and is associated with miracles.

One encounter with a Roma came after we had visited a museum in Bucharest. A dark-skinned Roma lady dressed in colorful headscarf, shawl, dark multi-layered skirt, and bright blue blouse, awaited us at the exit. She granted us permission to photograph her up close. We took several different poses and gave her a tip. This was such a pleasant surprise because it is known that Roma do not allow personal photos.

As we were leaving Transylvania, we saw a man milking one of 20 cows in a roadside pasture. He had just walked up to that free-standing, unsecured cow that was eating grass and started milking it. In all of my years associated with the dairy business, I had never seen anything like this. What I didn’t know was whether the man owned the cows or just needed some milk.

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It was on my third visit to Istanbul that I finally decided to have a Turkish bath because my girlfriend, Christina, wanted one. So we went to Cemberlitas Hamam, opened in 1584, in old Istanbul, before our Tauck World Discovery tour.

It was a modern, clean Haman inside and cost $40 for a 1-hour bath, massage, scrub mitt, olive oil soap, a small sheet and locker for belongings. So we got ready and went to the cold room and then the hot room, where I just stood inside the door gasping for air. I saw 15 beautiful naked bodies lying on the 15-foot round and 24-inch high marble platform and soaking up the hot steam.

Finally, I notice one body that looked like mine, plump and misshaped, so I wouldn’t be the only one. And, I saw the three scrubber ladies naked except for a tiny bikini bottom. As they scrubbed the ladies, their huge bellies shook “like a bowl full of jelly”.

So still standing by the door wrapped in my sheet, I thought I will never do this and let these people see my plump body. Besides, the scrubbers were scrubbing all the others and I thought I would just slip $20 so they would scrub me next. Instead, I exited to the cold room to sit and cool off.

Shortly, the scrubber came to get me for my scrubbing. She told me to lie down and yanked that sheet off of me and I just closed my eyes as I couldn’t bear to see this embarrassment. She doused me with a bucket of warm water and scrubbed with the scratchy mitt, removing all the dead skin cells. To my amazement, it felt wonderful. Then another bucket of water and more scrubbing was done on both sides.

Feathers felt like they were falling on me and I finally opened my eyes and she was squeezing a sack full of olive oil suds on me and then more scrubbing. It was now a massage, cleansing bath and hair washing all in one. The final bucket of water was tossed at me as I stood up but now, I didn’t want to leave, because I was enjoying the most awesome bath of a lifetime by submitting to public nudity.

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Accompanying a native Pole to her home in a small Polish community
in June is like spring in Austin.  Nature and this lake resort community’s hard work produced a cornucopia of berries, fruits, vegetables and dairy products.  My Polish hostess relished preparing local specialties both for my education and everyone’s pleasure.  And, she wanted to make sure I had ample opportunity to share in their bounty.

I tried to hold to my diet but my Polish hostess would not hear of it. One morning I was offered Milk Soup for breakfast. I grew-up milking cows and had never heard of Milk Soup, so when I saw it, I said “No Way!” But after taking a sip, I discovered it was delicious. It was white like milk and had all sizes of lumps in it. When I asked how the milk soup was made, the answer was “Google it.” And that was the standard reply to my request for recipes for the rest of the visit, maybe to protect family heirloom recipes or maybe due to translation difficulty.

Portions were suitable for those doing hard labor.  The Milk Soup was in a huge bowl with three times the amount I requested.  Next came “one scrambled egg” which must have been an ostrich egg because it was enough for four people. I was so stuffed after breakfast that I was in pain. One hour later, the cooked asked, “Are you hungry? I have a ham and cheese sandwich to tide you over.”

I ate everything placed before me so as not to offend the cook. And the organic dishes continued: potato dumplings, red cabbage, borscht, Polish pancakes the size of a large skillet, pickle soup and homemade cottage cheese. “Freshly made today,” the cook said. And, she could have added, “with fresh-harvested ingredients.” Next were meat bilinis with mushroom gravy and cheese blinies with strawberry sauce. They made the awesome strawberry sauce by “just smashing the strawberries we bought from the farmer’s market today.”  The ultimate palate party came from the wild Chanterelle mushrooms picked fresh in one hour from a Polish forest 15 minutes from the home of the family I was visiting. One hour after cleaning and slicing the mushrooms, the cook served them with butter and the next day with eggs and soups. They were divine.

Eleven days of delicious traditional Polish food wrecked my diet, but it gave me priceless experiences and memories of living with a Polish family for 11 days. And I have the 11 additional pounds to show for that wonderful visit.

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Waiting at the bus stop while visiting my girlfriend’s family in Poland, we noticed an old man riding his bicycle on a busy international highway. This 80-year-old man was riding his bicycle after going two miles to downtown to shop for needed supplies in the city.

After shopping, he always visited his wife’s grave on the way home and sat with her in silence a few minutes, then lit the candles on her marble grave. He has done this every day since his wife died 5 years ago. “They loved each other so much,” the daughter said.  And many times a year, he brought her flowers.

In fact, many of the graves have plants, flower arrangements and lanterns on them year round. Families regularly keep up their loved one’s black, mauve or gray marble grave by washing the stone and cleaning off leaves, trash and weeds. As a result, it is one of the most beautiful cemeteries I have ever seen.

But All Saints Day is the highlight for over 1000 family members who go to the cemetery and put up to 50 lanterns on the 4×8 foot tomb of their loved one, depending on how many the families could afford. Many times, the lanterns cover the entire tomb. Then the families go to church at noon for mass.

After mass, the 1000 family members walk in procession for a mile to the cemetery carrying candles for the graves. After putting the candles in the lanterns, the people visit and admire the massive demonstration of devotion as the entire cemetery of 1000 graves is illuminated in candlelight. “It is a site to behold,” his daughter said.

And every year, a mass is held in the church to honor the old man’s wife and every time he rides his bicycle there to honor her.

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