“A smooth sea never a skilled mariner made.”
– English proverb
In the summer of 1997, two friends and I decided it would be a hoot to spend six weeks visiting a variety of countries that had recently emerged from behind the Iron Curtain. It turned out to be rather more of a hoot than even a trio of 19 year olds hell-bent on sampling every brand of cheap local vodka could have possibly imagined. In fact, during one particularly ill-starred episode, we were ordered off a train at gunpoint by a quartet of grim-faced Belarusian border guards. Oh, the mirth.
Boarding the train in Vilnius, Lithuania, we were glad to be leaving town after what can only be described as a bizarre couple of days in the company of Martin, a distinctly odd English cruise ship entertainment coordinator who we had met at our hostel and who had vanished at the culmination of a tour of the city’s less-popular watering-holes and not reappeared. Easing ourselves onto the grubby, unpadded upholstery of the otherwise empty carriage, we worked our way through a package of greasy chicken rissoles and a bottle of warm grain alcohol before being overcome by the rhythm of the train. Several hours later, we were shaken out of our sweaty slumbers and the shiny barrels of Soviet-made carbines thrust in our faces. Had we been sober, temporary incontinence may have resulted, but barely batting an eyelid, we meekly obeyed strongly gesticulated orders to disembark, and could only gaze dumbly as the lights of the train clacked off into the gloom.
Sitting on the platform in the pitch black beneath a sign that dawn would reveal was marked “Lithuania” on one side and “Belarus” in Cyrillic lettering on the other, we were utterly confused. The vodka-haze clearing, we checked our tickets and figured out that we had boarded the train for Minsk instead of the one to Warsaw. Without visas for Belarus, we had been refused entry and would wait nine lonely hours on an unlit platform haunted by the hoots and growls of a deep Slavic forest until a train returning to Vilnius arrived. Backs together, facing outwards, the summer night suddenly chill, the full gravity of our situation became apparent. Blubbing and tears, heated arguments, angry accusations and, eventually, weary acceptance of our collective stupidity, ensued. A warm August sunrise was followed by a wicked thirsty, tired and hungover grumpiness that lasted until midday when we were able to obtain from the awful dining car on Belarus state railroads a gallon drum of tepid mineral water and a pair of sandwiches so old and so revolting that the mayonnaise had turned grey and the lettuce disintegrated to the touch.
The two almost completely sober weeks that followed this escapade, spent in Poland, the country that produces more vodka per head of population than anywhere else on earth, speak to the virtue of this experience. A harrowing visit to the former Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau certainly assisted that sobriety, as did the decision to spend an entire day in the cold dark of Europe’s largest salt mine. In continual use since the 13th century, Wieliczka’s main attraction is an entire cathedral carved out of the rock salt. Retreating to the dim, briny recesses, we presented our personal thanks to the Almighty for his recent benedictions.
Our good fortune that the outcome of our foolishness had been nothing worse than a panicky night under the stars was further emphasized while blowing the froth off a couple of pilseners on our first full day in Prague. Planning our onward itinerary to Budapest, Hungary, we couldn’t help but notice a man slumped at the bar who, lifting his head, revealed a blood-stained bandage, a nose bent like a shepherd’s crook, and a pair of almost cartoonishly gruesome black eyes. About to remark on this, we all suddenly realized it was none other than Martin, the Englishman who had gone missing that night in Vilnius. Amazed at the coincidence, and temporarily forgetting how awkward and weird he had been – (the reader may care to learn that in our efforts to track him down, we had gone through his belongings looking for contacts to inform of his disappearance. All we found was an unfeasible collection of the most dismal Eastern European pornography concealed in his backpack.) – we called him over to our table, haling him as a long-lost friend.
Through cracked, swollen lips he began to describe his terrifying ordeal after wandering off into the rabbit warren of Vilnius’ old town, full to the eyes with booze. No sooner had he turned a corner than he was set upon by a gang of thugs who promptly beat him senseless. Waking up to the end of a truncheon jammed in his ribs, he was arrested by the local boys in blue naked as the day he was born, having been robbed of everything: money, passport, and clothes. That his incarceration had coincided with a British public holiday that kept the consulate closed for three days meant that, in all, he had spent five of his vacation days unclothed in a cockroach-infested Lithuanian jail pleading with his unsympathetic gaolers for help. It was only after one of them had recognized his cries as English that the situation finally got resolved. Through the kind graces of a Czech colleague from the cruise line, he had managed to obtain some clothes and find his way to Prague where he was recuperating before rejoining his ship.
Doubting that a man whose fearsome visage resembled a heroin-addicted clown would have much success enthusing geriatric holiday-makers in the on-board entertainment schedule, we watched Martin refresh himself with four or five liters of strong Czech lager during his baleful account. Knowing from experience that this boded ill, we waited for him to take the inevitable bathroom break and did a runner, legging it onto the first available train for Bratislava, Slovakia, hoping like hell that we had seen the last of Martin.
Peeling shutters, rusting tram-tracks and, outside our hotel, a tabby so tranquilized the noon-day heat that it refused to toy with the wounded pigeon that struggled and fidgeted barely three feet away. Bratislava felt decades more than a two hour train ride from the touristed throng of Prague. Lacking the brooding gothic towers and castles of the Czech capital, but replete with heavily-mustachioed men in threadbare Homburg hats, hobnail boots and dusty jackets, the city felt more like the antediluvian Central Europe of Patrick Leigh Fermor, than the crucible of Cold War surveillance activity it had recently been.
A day-trip to Austria, across the Danube over which Communist east and capitalist west had spied on each other for more than 40 years, we didn’t even get our passports stamped. Although, this change in sentiment hadn’t extended to the signs pointing east at Vienna Hauptbahnhof which were still painted red. The thickly gilded palace of Schonbrunn and the unrestrained baroque of the Hapsburg capital, accentuated with sparkling silver Mercedes, provided stark contrast to the creaking medieval and ruinous prefabricated concrete just the other side of the Iron Curtain.
Returning to the Slovak capital that evening, we split up for the night: my friends to a nightclub called “The Special Eksperiment” where, among other notable events, they encountered twin sisters, who, as the evening progressed, both turned out to be bald; I, to an unlikely-looking restaurant with bare trestle tables and full ashtrays where I sweated through an enormous serving of stewed duck legs with heavy Slovak dumplings, and a side of sauerkraut so vinegary it made your butt pucker.
Five weeks in, the trip was far from over. A highly disturbing episode in Budapest’s Turkish baths and a youth hostel that doubled as a strip-joint lay only a few days ahead, but enough water had passed under the bridge by this point in our journey that a calm evening gorging on Slovak comforts represented a welcome break from the hijinks of the prior month.
Belgrade Pork Chops Belehradský bravčový rezeň ( v zemiakovom cestičku)
This dish is an attempt to recreate what we ate at Milan Restaurant, Green-wood, Brooklyn, about as authentic a Czech/Slovak dining hall as you’ll find this side of the Danube.
- 2 large pork chops, 1 inch thick
- 2 large eggs
- 1 package Manischewitz potato pancake mix
- 2 1/4 cups cold water
- 2 tablespoons all purpose flour
- vegetable or canola oil for frying
- Heat oil in a large skillet to 350F.
- Crack eggs into a bowl and whisk well. In a separate bowl empty potato pancake mix.
- Rinse pork chops under cold water and pat dry. Sprinkle with a little salt and flour.
- Dunk chops in egg and then into the potato pancake mix, ensuring they are coated well and completely.
- Fry pork chops in oil under golden brown and crispy, approximately 4 minutes per side.
- Remove from pan to a rack and allow to rest for 3-4 minutes before serving.
- Serve with Czech-style potato salad of boiled potatoes in a mustard, sour cream and dill sauce.