Travel Flashback: Europe Behind the Curtain (1991)

(Kingston, Ontario, Canada)

I recently watched “Heisser Sommer” (“Hot Summer”), the East German beach movie that took the Eastern Bloc by storm in 1968. There weren’t many Communist musicals, and even fewer that followed the American beach movie template, but this is one of them! It is a fascinating artifact from a bygone age:  this link shows one of the better songs.  At the same time, one cannot forget that 1968 also saw brutal repression in nearby Czechoslovakia.

I’ve since been to Eastern Europe several times, but the very first time was in 1991 when the world was still adjusting to the fall of the Iron Curtain.  This was the standard post-university Eurail/backpacking/youth hostel trip before the Internet:  several weeks with little else but a Eurail route map, a Hosteling International booklet showing its network of European hostels, and a “Let’s Go Europe” book to guide me.  It was my first truly solo trip and I’ll probably write some more about it in the future.  For now, I’ll just share a couple of my experiences from my visits to Yugoslavia and Hungary.

Post office at Sentilk, Yugoslavia (June 18, 1991)
Post office at Sentilj, Yugoslavia (June 18, 1991)

When I was in the southern Austrian city of Graz, I decided to hop a train south to the border station of Spielfield-Strasse.  For reasons I can’t remember, I walked from there to the corresponding Yugoslavian border town of Sentilj.  There was a reason that I felt rifles were trained on me as I crossed the border:  although it wasn’t actually part of the Eastern Bloc, Yugoslavia was about to enter a brutal civil war that would result in the partitioning of the country.  Only 6 days after, there were deaths at this very same border and Slovenia would declare its independence.    Accordingly, the picture at the top of this post is probably one of the very last photos of the “Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia” sign at the Austrian/Yugoslavian border.

Tanks being deported from Tata, Hungary (June 22, 1991)
Tanks being deported from Tata, Hungary (June 22, 1991)

I didn’t do much in Sentilj, as I needed to walk back to Spielfeld-Strasse and catch a train back to Graz that afternoon.  I did, however, send a bunch of postcards from Sentilj’s ancient post office; I made note of the fact that Marshal Tito’s picture still gazed paternally from the post office wall.  I also bought some Yugoslavian chocolate in an attempt to get rid of my leftover Yugoslavian dinars.

Gödöllői utca 13: this is where I stayed in Budapest (June 24, 1991)
Gödöllői utca: this is where I stayed in Budapest (June 24, 1991)

From Graz, I spent some time in Vienna before taking a train to Budapest, Hungary.  Along the way, I saw a freight train carrying dozens of Soviet tanks that were apparently on their way back east.  The arrival in Budapest was chaotic, as dozens of newly capitalistic Hungarians rushed onto the train to convince passengers to stay in their homes.  I pretended that I had already made arrangements and escaped the steamy train.  At a comfortable distance from the chaos of the train, a more restrained and seemingly trustworthy fellow offered a room for $5.00 per night (including tram tickets).

Poster for an upcoming Beatles cover band concert (Budapest, Hungary - June 24, 1991)
Poster for an upcoming Beatles tribute concert (Budapest, Hungary – June 24, 1991)

Upon arrival at his relatively suburban house, I discovered that the room was shared:  the first night’s roommate was from Hong Kong while the next two nights saw a chain-smoking Russian share my space.   Although it wasn’t what I had envisioned, it was still a safe place to stay.

Street leading to the main BUdapest railway station (Budapest Keleti pályaudvar); June 22, 1991
Street leading to the main Budapest railway station (Keleti pályaudvar); June 22, 1991

While the Iron Curtain had fallen, Hungary was still very much in a state of transition to an open economy.   Prices were incredibly low but I also remember ordering a “cucumber salad” in a restaurant:  it consisted solely of a single pickle sliced into 4 quarters.  Although the restaurant was practically empty, there was still a very large (and bored) contingent of formally-dressed waiters who seemed rather annoyed that I had shown up.   Outside, you could still see the beauty of Budapest – it was just obscured by what seemed like decades of gray dust.   Nonetheless, I still had some great experiences in Hungary (including a Paul Simon concert!) and was happy to return in 2014 to this proud and much-changed country.

Uppsala and Squeaky Cheese (2012/2016)

(Kingston, Ontario, Canada)

Our 2012 trip to Scandinavia started off with 2 nights in Uppsala.  Although it’s the 4th largest city in Sweden, it only has about 140,000 inhabitants.  We chose it because it was close to the Stockholm airport and it looked like a good place to acclimatize for our upcoming journey into the former Soviet republic of Estonia.  As our return flight was also departing from Stockholm, we thought we’d defer spending time in the capital until we returned from the east.

Bees at Uppsala's Botanical Gardens
Bees at Uppsala’s Botanical Gardens

Everything about Uppsala was pleasant:  the parks, the streets, the historical sites and the university (founded in 1477 and Scandinavia’s oldest centre of higher learning).   As we had hoped, it was easy to get into the European rhythm.  We did some very mundane things to start:  we went to a local mall to buy shorts, as it was warmer than we had anticipated and I had also forgotten to bring shorts with me.  As a result, I remain the proud owner of Swedish “pirate shorts”:  a little longer than usual but still comfortable on a hot summer’s day.

Uppsala's Cathedral up close
Uppsala Cathedral up close

We shed our jet lag with leisurely visits to Uppsala Castle, the adjacent Botanical Garden (both pictured at the top of this post), and the  Domkyrka (Uppsala Cathedral).  The Cathedral goes back to the 13th century and dominates the skyline of the small city.   While I wouldn’t say that Uppsala has a lot of bucket list sights, we enjoyed wandering around the city and soaking in the academic vibe.  We both thought it would be a great place to attend university, should we ever decide to pursue further  studies!

Uppsala Cathedral at a more sensible distance
Uppsala Cathedral at a more sensible distance

I was prompted to write about Sweden today because I decided to try a Scandinavian cheese called Juustoleipa (in Finnish) or Ostbrod (in Swedish) for lunch. The name translates as “bread cheese” and it’s described on the package as a “buttery-flavoured flat and squeaky cheese”.  I found it at our neighbourhood supermarket, among the other specialty cheeses.

Frying up some Juuhtopapesi
Frying up some Juustoleipa at base camp!

To make Juustoleipa, you just heat it in a skillet for four minutes on each side.  The end result is quite similar to fried halloumi with hints of mozzarella and the texture of cheese curd.  It was warm throughout with a bread-like crust on the outside.  While the instructions recommended serving it with jam, honey or syrup, we went with plain fresh croissants instead.  It was delicious; I look forward to trying it again with something sweet.  Speaking of sweet Swedish food, that is my favourite culinary memory of Uppsala:  we enjoyed terrific crepes al fresco at a charming downtown cafe.

Downtown Uppsala
Downtown Uppsala

This post was delayed a bit because of some photo uploading challenges, although everything seems to be sorted out now.  In the meantime, we were able to take care of immunizations and some logistical planning for our summer journey to the southern hemisphere.  This is one of my favourite parts of travel planning: seeing everything slowly fall into place and realizing that “yes, this is actually going to happen!”   We’re really going to see three new countries!

Ottawa in a Blizzard

(Ottawa, Ontario, Canada)

My previous post talked about our trip to the Supreme Court of Canada, but that wasn’t the only national site we visited on December 29.  We also braved the snows to take a tour of the Royal Canadian Mint.

The Royal Canadian Mint actually has two locations now.  The original facility in Ottawa now produces only special commemorative and investment coins, while the newer facility in Winnipeg now handles the minting of the standard everyday coinage.   The upside of this is that you get to see some seriously valuable metal in Ottawa, as virtually everything is made of silver or gold.  It also produces specialty items, such as the medals awarded during the 2010 Winter Olympics and the 2015 Pan-Am Games.

Security Gate outside the Royal Canadian Mint in Ottawa
Security Gate outside the Royal Canadian Mint in Ottawa

After the tour, we were able to lift a gold bar worth about $680,000.00.  It is securely attached and under the watchful eyes of two security guards; it is also a lot heavier than you’d expect!  The tour is not long but it is also not that expensive; however, you do need to sign up in advance so that you are able to go through the guard post at the entrance to the facility.  Unfortunately, no photographs are permitted during the tour itself.

Bank Street in Ottawa's Glebe neighbourhood
Bank Street in Ottawa’s Glebe neighbourhood

As we had both previously been on tours of the Parliament Buildings, we weren’t too disappointed to find out that the day’s tours were already fully booked by the time we got there.  You can only get tickets on the day of the tour; as a result, there are often line-ups first thing in the morning and all of the day’s tickets were gone by 10:30 a.m.  If the timing works for us, we will try to take one of these tours the next time we are in Ottawa.

Inside the Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica in Ottawa
Inside the Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica in Ottawa

That evening, we went to a family-run Persian restaurant called “Saffron” in the Sandy Hill neighbourhood.  It was not fancy but we really enjoyed the food.  They were very accommodating and even suggested that my wife order something that was not on the menu.

The previous day, we spent an entire afternoon at the Canadian War Museum.  It is huge:  there are 4 separate halls plus a large temporary exhibit area:  we were there for about three hours and only saw the “Cold War” hall and the temporary exhibit on Women in War.

Odd device from the National War Museum in Ottawa
Electropsychometer (Lie Detector) from the National War Museum in Ottawa

The Cold War hall focused naturally on the period between World War II and the early 1990s.  It is strange to walk through a museum and see things that you actually remember being part of your own life:  for us, seeing the small display of “Cold War music videos from the 1980s” was especially poignant as we remember when these songs and videos first came out.

A piece of the Berlin Wall at the War Museum. This is the side that faced West Berlin; there was nothing on the side facing East Berlin
A piece of the Berlin Wall at the War Museum. This is the side that faced West Berlin; there was nothing on the side facing East Berlin

I spent some time at the Cold War Simulator, watching the two “best guesses” of how a conflict between NATO and the Warsaw Pact might have unfolded.  Even though these were only simulations, it was still very scary to see a desperate, last-ditch use of chemical weapons followed by a single retaliatory nuclear strike.

My next major trip is now less than 2 months away; I’ve been very busy with finalizing those arrangements and doing the “macro planning” for this summer’s southern hemisphere journey.  Stay tuned for more on those trips and some more travel flashbacks!



The Supreme Court of Canada

(Ottawa, Ontario, Canada)

One of the fun experiences during our December getaway to Ottawa was a guided tour of the Supreme Court of Canada. As a lawyer, of course, this was the ultimate career-related tour for me.  Other than a visit to the Federal Court of Appeal (housed in the same building) twenty years ago as a law student with one of my professors, I had never been to the Supreme Court.

You cannot just show up for guided Supreme Court tours but it is possible to book them online.  Perhaps because of the raging and long-awaited blizzard on December 29, our tour consisted of just the two of us and our guide. I think he enjoyed providing a bit more detail than he would normally provide to non-lawyers.

A closer look at the Supreme Court of Canada
A closer look at the Supreme Court of Canada – this is a colour photograph!

The building looks very severe from the outside (see snowy photo at the top of this blog – it’s also a colour photograph!), reflecting the rationality that is necessarily part of the Supreme Court’s role.   Despite a huge foyer and impressive staircases, the Supreme Court courtroom is actually not that large.  I have been in larger local courtrooms, although not quite as plush.  Of course, the Supreme Court does not require space for jurors or witnesses:  proceedings here are appeals from lower courts and do not require new testimony.  The appeals are relatively technical and free from the unpredictability of live witnesses.

Main foyer of the Supreme Court of Canada - the stairs lead to the main courtroom; you can also see the formal judge's robe at the bottom left
Main foyer of the Supreme Court of Canada – the stairs lead to the main courtroom; you can also see the formal judge’s robe at the bottom left

Even in front of one judge, presenting legal arguments can be somewhat intimidating.  Imagine presenting to a panel of 9 judges!  I stood at the lectern and was surprised by how close the judges would be in “real life”.   While some hearings are handled by “only” 5 or 7 judges, a lawyer at the Supreme Court is still trying to make very precise and subtle arguments to a lot of very brilliant minds.  Their time is very valuable and you cannot waste it with irrelevancies.  Not only that, but they are also able to communicate with each other during the course of the hearing.  Yes, they have “chat” capability on their computers!  This allows them to focus even more on the most important issues.

Inside the Supreme Court! The judges sit in the 9 chairs facing the camera; the lawyer arguing stands at the lectern near the bottom left
Inside the Supreme Court! The judges sit in the 9 chairs facing the camera; the lawyer arguing stands at the lectern near the bottom left

We also spent some time in the Federal Court of Appeal, where a panel is typically composed of three judges.  This portion of the tour is a little more informal and tour participants can even be photographed on the judges’ bench wearing supplied “judge robes” (which were, in this case, identical to my own legal robes).  We decided to take advantage of the opportunity!

Renegade panel of judges at the Federal Court of Appeal
Renegade panel of judges at the Federal Court of Appeal

You do not need to be on a guided tour to observe proceedings in the Federal Court of Appeal or the Supreme Court of Canada.  It is possible to just show up and watch:  even these highest levels of our court system are open to the public, subject to spectator capacity, security checks and respectful behaviour.   Hearings are also streamed over the Internet.  However, unlike trials with live witnesses, the Supreme Court drama lies in the intellectual challenge and the broader impacts of the decisions on society.

My next blog entry will have more on our wintry trip to Ottawa!