Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Dead End

 Almost every wall or building in Serbia has Graffiti. It is so ubiquitous, eventually you don't even notice it. Evidently one of the most popular slogans translates as  "Ha!  You wasted your time painting this wall!"
 Werbass (population 25,000) is a nondescript gritty town circled by factory sites and agri-supply businesses and the steady traffic of transport trucks and tractors that feed them. The town is known as the food factory of Serbia with a meat canning plant, sugar refinery, and cooking oil margarine production facility. The sugar refinery uses the locally grown sugar beets and has been here since 1913. I have seen this building in old family photos.

The main street is canopied by the old trees that line its route with cafes and stores set back further from the street than other towns in this area. The side streets are mostly well kept single family dwellings with the odd apartment building or town house complex thrown in. A disused, polluted canal runs across the north side of the town. We cruised the main street looking for a town square or town hall and neither of these were evident.

The only accommodation in town is the central Backa Hotel, a tired 45 year old six story building that is way past its obvious glory days with multiple dining rooms and a ball room. It is now mainly used as housing for temporary workers at the food plants. We unwisely decide to take a room at the Backa so that we can be in town and get started in the morning tracing the family history. I have to rate this hotel in my top five list of worst rooms (This list includes the one in Ahmadabad, India where my sister and I had to block the holes in the wall to keep the rats out). We are assigned a dorm style room with seven beds and two bathrooms. The light fixtures are all bulbs on a wire, curtains frayed, bed sheets ripped and mattress with stuffing spilling out covered up by torn bed sheet.

Glory days in the rear view mirror

On the recommendation of the desk clerk, we head out to dine in one of Werbass' top restaurants. This restaurant is an eclectic mix of kitsch and old world charm near the edge of town. Its outdoor court yard dining area houses hand made iron sculptures and the roofs around the terrace are an odd undulating row of clay tile roofs supported by columns made of re purposed varnished tree trunks with branches still attached. The floor is a mosaic of old ceramic tile, pottery and granite all carefully cemented in no particular pattern. On the walls are spot lit decoupage plaques of naked women and on each table is a vase with a bouquet of (magic?) mushrooms. The sound system provides the ambiance with a mix tape of Lionel Ritchie, Guns and Roses, Whitney Houston and Kraftwerk.
Excellent food and service though, with a wood fired oven in the kitchen. $14 each including a litre of wine, espressos, slivovica (plum brandy), dessert and tip.
Funky restaurant "Club A"

Back to Hotel Hell where no amount of wine or slivovica will make it seem better and we all have a terrible night's sleep. We cannot find anybody who speaks enough English to steer us to the museum. Finally I find out from a news stand women that the museum is housed in a non marked building right beside the hotel and that it will be open tomorrow. Behind the museum are two side by side abandoned churches in different states of disrepair. We recognize one of the churches from old family photos as the one from my grandparents 1934 wedding.

We set out to explore the surrounding countryside and secure other accommodations ending up in Sombor about 35 Kms northwest. Sombor is a town of about 50,000 inhabitants that has a charming town hall, central square and cathedral from the 18th century. North from here near the Hungarian border is the town of Subotica, a major town with amazingly preserved architecture from the Austro-Hungarian medieval kingdom period. Both of these towns are a feast for the eyes. I discovered that SMS text messaging is the method that is used to pay for street parking here. Cyrillic signs are difficult to decipher and the tow truck known as "the spider" scooped our Ford Mondeo and took it to a suburban depot. A cabby helped out and took us there for 3$ and we approached the standoffish attendants who were expecting some pissed off Romanians to come for their Romanian plated car. I paid the 63$ ransom(1+1/2 weeks wages for the average Serb) and when they saw our amusement at the situation they relaxed and apologized. A total delay of 20 minutes from missing car to back on the road and now I know about SMS pay and park.
Sombor town hall

On Tuesday morning we set out to try our luck in Werbass one more time. 
We were soon to hit the jackpot.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011


Our two day stay in Zriajinin overlooked the town square at another excellent boutique style hotel very similar to the one we stayed at in Bucharest.
The entire hotel looks like it was decorated by the an Ikea designer. An international woman's volleyball tournament is taking place in nearby NoviSad, Serbia's second largest city. Staying in the hotel are the Polish, Romanian and Israeli teams. This tourney seems to be a big deal as it is being televised internationally. Security is tight with the Israeli's staying here as they get escorted loading in and out of their bus by police and security. These 16 -30 year old women are all very tall and needless to say, fit. From our hotel window I look down on the pretty town square to see the juxtaposition of the athletes boarding their bus beside my Mom and aunt waddling around the the town square after the 15,000 Dinars that just blew out of one of their hands at the ATM. Within ten minutes all the $180 CAD equivalent in cash was recovered.

Zranjinin is about 20 minutes from both Novi Sad to the south and Werbass to the northwest. It has a fairly wide of variety of active industries with textile plants and numerous food plants to process the harvest from all of the fertile land surrounding it. The terrain around here is the same fertile alluvial plains that make up most of the Vojvodina. It is harvest time and the roads around here are crawling with combines harvesters, corn laden trucks and tractors.
The highway to Novi Sad is pretty decent driving for a two laner. The Serbs are the probably most civilized drivers I have ever seen in any of the eight European countries I have visited. It is really just like driving in Ontario but then it is highly subjective if Ontario driving is indeed civilized. Police enforcement of speed limits is strictly enforced here with numerous radar traps and rules are generally obeyed.

Novi Sad is undergoing some major road work with new highway interchanges and ramps that workmen appear to be toiling on 24/7. So far at every highway construction project that we have encountered in both Romania and Serbia there is EU or German government signage and flags indicating their funding of the work. Only Bulgaria and Romania have been accepted into the EU as probationary members but still maintain their own currencies. The former Yugoslavian republics have not been granted entry primarily due to the unresolved border conflicts. Speaking to some of the locals about this, western European nations use the EU membership as carrot on a stick approach to get these countries to comply with EU standards on ecology, human rights, trade and other concerns.

As one German tourist told me: "We need to loan these countries money so that they may build the roads and buy our cars to drive on them". It all sounds similar to classic Ponzi scheme going on where the Chinese buy US treasuries so that Americans have money to borrow and buy more Chinese trinkets.
German total national exports are approximately equal to that of China's 1.2 trillion dollars, their population is aging and not consuming like they used to and they are on the hook for 250 billion in bonds loaned to the PIIGS (Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain) One extreme solution would be for Germany to exit the Euro and allow the other nations to devalue the currency which cannot happen with the Germans still on the Euro. This seems unlikely now though as a devalued currency will make it more difficult to pay back the debt. It is starting to look like the plan is to paper over the debt with more money printing just like the US does: Extend and Pretend

I am just a dumb millwright so I don't understand the intricacies of LIBOR, sovereign bond purchases, debt rollover  and international finance. I say just pull the band aid off fast and let Greece default along with the rest of the PIIGS but people way smarter than me supposedly have got this all under control. The African politicians have even waded in giving the Euros and Americans advice Quit your belly aching and the newly powerful BRIC nations are now talking about loaning money to the European Central bank which leads me back to the east block nations.
The Euro zone needs these new consumers to buy their products. These burgeoning consumers are the next frontier in the easy credit and finance cycle so that the Germans can keep their mighty industrial juggernaut chugging along. American industries are also getting a toehold here to replace their own tapped out consumers.

Now, where was I?
Oh yeah, this was supposed to be a travel blog not a finance blog.

Today we are making another trip to Werbass to try to locate the house. Our base is now in Sombor, about 50 kms. to the northwest of Werbass. I'm still having hotel WiFi issues but will try to update with more pics and an interactive map later.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Long Live Serbia 2

We set off from the interesting but difficult to get around Bucharest or Buchapest as I like to call it since driving there is so annoying.
Michael Jackson had stood on the parliament balcony there in front of his adoring fans and shouted Hello Budapest. I'm so glad to be here!

The country's one good motorway, the national road E70 is a relatively short stretch of road that heads up towards Transylvania and you can cruise at 160 kph. That is after escaping the city which takes two hours, keeping in mind that this is not even during peak hours.

3 Abandoned soviet era crop dusters. One is a now a very cool makeshift house for an elderly man.
Our travel route was to take us through the province of Wallachia. Here is where prince Vlad Tepes the inspiration for the Dracula novel ruled, not Transylvania. After an hour on the fast divided highway we get back onto a two laner that winds its way through foot hills and plains. Road side vendors sell produce from the farms surrounding the road and traffic is light but caution must be exercised for gypsy horse drawn wagons.

 As we pass through some medium sized towns it becomes evident of the scale of industrialization that took place under the communists. Each town has a massive steel mill, aluminum smelter or some other large scale anchor plant. Many now look either totally abandoned or working at partial capacity. We also pass the nuclear facility that Canada designed and collaborated on. The road then passes through an oil field with derricks as far as you can see on both sides.

Our overnight stop was in the town of Drobeta-Turnu Severin. A lovely city on the left bank of the Danube.The hotel is a frozen-in-time 1960's, seven story overlooking a church and the Danube.  We rented a suite with two bathrooms for $75 including a full breakfast. This is considered a 3 out of 4 star hotel in the Romanian system. Typical meals in this country cost around eight dollars and the excellent beer or wine are a dollar. The desk clerks apologized that their hotel was outdated and I don't think they believed me when I explained where I come from 1960's decor is actually sought after.

Mid Century Modern east block style
View from our suite

We wanted to follow the Danube as much as possible and selected a small secondary route that hugs the bank along the mountains through what is known as the Iron Gates since the mountains tower straight up each side. This added at least 3 hours of driving but was well worth it.
The border crossing at Bela Crkva, Serbia involved checking out of Romania with the border guards including presenting passports and all of the paperwork for the car and then doing it all over again for the Serb guards in the next building. Vojvodina province where we entered is as flat as the prairies. It was once known as the bread basket of the Balkans and is now covered in endless cornfields with the odd apple orchard and vineyard thrown in. We stopped at the sole cafe in a sleepy farming village about an hour outside of Belgrade. After placing our order we were asked if we are Americans(the bad guys who dropped 2 bombs on their town during the 90's) and when we told them we were Canucks we were suddenly treated as heroes(they have relatives in Kitchener) no charge on the house but we must promise to come back again. I discretely slipped the cash under an ash tray and gave the coin collector amongst them a full set of Cnd. change plus some Ottawa embroidered badges.
Serbian Victory symbol
Most people under 40 speak English and what a couple of different Serbs have already told me "The whole world hates us". I am a guest in their country and also am not sure of their net neutrality so will not get into a discussion about the Kosovo situation on here. What I can tell you is the people who I have interacted with have gone out of their way to show kindness and generosity. A fellow uploaded my GPS with local maps saving me $100 and then saw that my iPhone had no case and insisted on giving me one. He was adamant about not taking money. Pirated software is still the main source for consumers in this part of the world. I feel bad for my girlfriend, sister and brother in law who are in the software development business because if we all used pirated software how would they ever be able to afford their thoroughbred horses or yachts?

In case of Cyrillic script..RUN!

The past two days we have stayed in Zrenjanin, midway between Novi Sad and Werbas. Today we head to Werbas and try to find the family homestead.
I will attempt to upload a route map onto the blog next update.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Long Live Serbia

Serious Wifi issues here in Zrejanin, Serbia so I'm not able to complete a post tonight, however stay tuned. I'm at the Museum Cafe drinking homemade plum brandy out of a plastic water bottle to not offend my partially working WiFi, host/owner.

Oh no..Now he is singing along with the Serbian heavy metal band playing on the sound system and I really must return to my hotel. Really.

More tomorrow..

Thursday, September 22, 2011


Nicolae Ceausescu.
Last leader under the communist system here. Tyrant. Brutal Dictator. Enigmatic Megalomaniac. The single most despised name in all of Romania.

Mere mention of his name elicits strong responses from the populace 22 years after his death. I have already learned not to speak of him unless a national brings up the topic. In fact it is a crime to publicly praise him or deny his atrocities with the penalty of large fines or even jail time.During his 24 year reign, Ceausescu was an outsider even within the Iron Curtain. His Stalinist version of communism was modeled more after the North Koreans and Chinese than the Soviets. He denounced the Soviets, took part in international negotiations and warmed relationships with western powers in the first half of his reign. This led to trade agreements and loans from the international monetary fund totaling 14 billion dollars, a sum that brought the country to its knees since it was almost impossible to repay.

The second half of his term was one of international isolation and alienation. His secret police, the "Securitate", ramped up their surveillance of the citizenry and launched industrial espionage programs against the west. He resolved to repay the international loans throughout the 1980's by exporting virtually all of the country's agricultural and factory production plus various other austerity schemes. The results were disastrous and led to wide spread hunger and hardship but the loans were repaid.

In 1983 "The Conducator" began his grandest scheme. The Palace of Parliament. 
Located on top of historical Spirii Hill near the centre of town, the palace is the largest civilian building in the world at 3.7 million sq. ft., only the Pentagon is larger. Forty thousand residences including priceless medieval churches and synagogues were bulldozed for this folly which included a fountained boulevard modeled after the Champs Élysées in Paris and surrounding luxury housing for the regime's elite. Many of Bucharest's 125,000 stray dogs are the result of this upheaval. The displaced citizenry were relocated to rural villages and with relatives as no replacement housing existed.

The 24 hour/ 7 day work was conducted almost exclusively by 20,000 prisoner workers of the political dissident variety, countless thousands of workers starved to death as Ceausescu circled the site several times daily in one out of his fleet of chauffeur driven luxury cars. 90% of all the materials used in the construction were sourced nationally mostly in Transylvania with marble being the primary surface for interior surfaces. Mill work in gold leaf, oak, maple, walnut, cherry and imported mahogany gifted from fellow tyrant Mobuto Sese Seko of the Congo. Gaudy crystal chandeliers adorn every room some weighing in at 3 tonnes. Silk curtains abound windows, custom made tapestries adorn floors and walls along with commissioned paintings by the country's top artists. The design of the complex was carried out by a team of 700 architects headed by a 28 year old woman who won the design competition at one of the universities. The style of the 12 story building is an odd mashup of Stalinist neoclassical exterior with French and Italian renaissance influenced interior and atomic shelter basement.

 All the while the population was subjected to rotating blackouts, heating fuel shortages, food lineups and little medical supplies. All electronic media was suspended except for one state radio station and a TV station broadcasting 2 hours/day staged clips of well stocked stores and a frozen in time, forty year old Ceausescu.
Just one of hundreds similar room
Our first tourist stop in Bucharest was the palace, partly because it was so easy to find.The guided tours cost about $15 and last two hours. The government run facility is a remnant of the old communist system as you must navigate four different officials at their kiosks to buy a ticket, each involving but not limited to: stamping a paper, showing your passport, accepting an ID badge, paying, surrendering your passport, showing your stamped paperwork, x-raying and metal detection and agreeing to abide by the conventions of Romanian national law.
To wit:
"Intentionally leaving the guided tour is considered insight into the headquarters of a public central authority by violating the legal access norm which is sanctioned by act 2 law 61/991 of national law"

3 stories underground hopefully all the friable asbestos insulation will at least save me from any atomic blasts
Our attractive 20 something guide was very enthusiastic and provided an informative 2 km. interior tour to our seven member group. The building was meant to house Nic and his family as well as the supreme court and parliament and was 90% completed. The gruesome couple never did move in and get to enjoy the fancy digs, having succumbed to televised "bullet related" causes on Christmas night 1989. This was the climax to a revolution and a speedy trial.
Romania is the only country that suffered major bloodshed during the historical toppling of communism with 1200 protesters shot down in the central University Square in one night. A simple crude monument marks the spot in this busy major downtown intersection. Our guide repeatedly described the Ceausescu's as having "died". Finally I could no longer resist and asked what they died of? She answered slyly : " You already know that".

We are a little short on dictators.
"The Genius of The Carpathians", as Ceausescu also liked to be called, was a short man at 5'5" and wore the puffed up hairdo and platform shoes to overcome his little man syndrome(LMS). There are various features in the palace to accommodate his LMS such as stair steps with short risers.
It is sometimes difficult to not chuckle over the peccadilloes of the world's crazy dictator personalities such as Kim Jong Il, Ghaddafi or the Genius but when you think of the human cost of these monsters, there really is nothing funny at all. 
Romania's darkest days were during the 80's and I was in my 20's at the time. I cannot even fathom what my life would have been like had I been born a Romania instead of Canadian. Those who know me would agree that I can be rather outspoken at the best of times so yes I would probably have been a forced palace worker.
In these globally connected, wired times why do these tyrants still rule in various pockets of our planet?

The palace stands on top of the hill visible to the population as a monument to a dark era. It acts as a conference centre, art gallery and houses the constitutional court. The tour fees do not even cover the hydro bill. In the mid nineties Donald Trump placed a rejected offer for it at 3 billion dollars. Nobody really knows the true cost to build it but a recent evaluation places it at 20 billion dollars replacement cost. 
The locals all look at it with sorrow instead of pride and nobody can really come up with a long term plan for its future.

The Monument of Sorrow.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Wacky Racers

 Ugg, jet lag, the scourge of trans Atlantic travel.

Our fully loaded Toronto to Paris Air France tired jumbo arrived on time with its surly crew of sky waitresses inflicting their mission statement on their 400 passengers: "We Are Not Happy Until The Customer is Not Happy".  Nonetheless the 747 is still a technological marvel considering it has been around for 42 years.

A quick transfer in the futuristic de Gaulle airport to the Tarom Air 2.5 hour Bucharest flight in a clean new aircraft with cheerful staff. Flying over the countryside of Romania as we approached, I immediately noted the large scale and variety of agricultural activity. This country is noted for its fresh organic produce and a strong agrarian history.

Through the reading I did and from talking to Romanian expats back in Canada, my preconceived notions of this former east block nation were to be shattered before the plane even touched down.
Speaking of expats, out of the four I spoke to about my trip, only one reacted favourably. The others either laughed manically or asked me in a solemn tone why I would ever want to vacation here.

Some quick Romania facts  (Canada's in italicized brackets):
  • 22,000,000 population  (32,000,000)
  • $12,000 per capita GDP  ($40,000)
  • 54% Urbanized population & still one of Europe's lowest  (81%)
  • 237,500 square kms.  (Labrador 294,000 sq. kms.) 
  • 69 of 148 on corruption index  (#6 of 148)
  • 25% living below poverty line  (4%)
  • 5.6% of GDP budget deficit  (6.5%)
  • 6.1% unemployment rate  (8.1%)
The Tarom jet approached the landing strip and around the airport are new hi tech and light manufacturing campus facilities emblazoned with corporate banners. Touching down on the tar mac, one cannot help but notice the many abandoned Soviet era aircraft strategically parked around the perimeter with long grass growing around them. The terminal is a sleek clean modern facility comparable to Ottawa's own airport. Ground crews had 2 stairs attached to the jet and everybody off within minutes. The female border guard greeted me with a smile, asked my country of origin and wished me a good vacation in perfect English. Hmm, maybe the Romanians can train the Canadian Border Guards in basic civility.

This is Not what the Bucharest Airport looks like.

My rental car agent awaited holding my name on a sign and within 20 minutes we were on the road toward the city core. To date we have not encountered any slow, inept, non nonchalant service that former communist nations have a bit of reputation for.

The guide books and western expats here at the hotel all describe driving in Bucharest as madness and I think that sums it up very succinctly. Due to our multi-country route and my co-traveler's difficulty walking any long distances, driving in the city is our default transportation method. Few visitors attempt it.

The streets here were virtually empty 25 years ago with just Dacia and Ladas, belonging to the lucky few, sputtering around. Fast forward to today and many of the old Dacias are laying abandoned taking up valuable parking spots while the streets are filled with every new and latest car and SUV. I have even come across a few Cadillac Escalades and Porsche Cayennes, remarkable considering gas costs about $2.10/ litre. Most of their fleet is diesel as is our rental.

The potholed streets are not marked with any lines and lanes merge together in intersections without warning, when the traffic actually moves. Roads arbitrarily become opposing one way streets without any signage and traffic lights at many major intersections are nothing more than a small low hanging pedestrian red/green light bulb and are merely a suggestion, Roundabouts are not quite round and have traffic lights incongruously placed all around the circle that can suddenly change. Street name signs are non existent or too small and rusty to read. No streets are aligned but all traverse at various angles. Double or sidewalk parking is encouraged. Aggressive driving is the default mode here and it all becomes a little "Mad Max" as buses, street cars, jay walkers, stray dogs, motorcycles, trucks and passenger cars jockey for space.

I still say India takes the prize for the wackiest drivers on the planet but the residents of Bucharest are a close second.

Dacia? Nu Multumesc.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

The "Plan"

Here I am riding down highway # 7 in Greyhound bus. Ottawa to Peterborough.

This is the first stage of my eastern European 21 day excursion.

OK, maybe I should back up some more and explain my mission. After all, I always thought the bus was a little low rent, full of freaks(except me of course) so I repeatedly tell myself riding the Greyhound really is nothing to lose my head over. What I did discover is low cost fares, free fast WI-FI, airport style security carry on inspections along with other good security updates after that tragedy in Winnipeg. The fare is the same as my pickup truck's fuel bill for the same trip. It looks like the future is still good for intercity buses.

But I digress.

Toronto to Bucharest

Sometime last year my mother started talking about returning to see the village where she and her and her 4 siblings were born. My Mom's side of the family are Danube Swabians and come from around the Danube River in an area stretching several countries right to where the Danube meets the Black Sea. Wiki has a pretty good writeup on their history, here
 If you scroll down through the tales of war and violence the north Yugoslavian Batschka region has experienced, my mom's story there ended in 1945 as a soon to be 6 year old. My grandmother and her sister in law left their confiscated ancestral houses with only a couple of pots and all the food they could carry and 7
children all under 10 .

65 years later I am volunteered as driver, tour director and bag man for the return home to see the now Serbian village and house.Our original intent was to fly into Vienna and drive down to Serbia. Air France had a deal to Bucharest which is a little farther but gives us another country to explore so we fly out of Toronto to Romania tomorrow.

Our first stay will be in the preserved Stalinist capital for a couple of days.