I suppose I should start with a bit of a background. I’m a thirty-something dude living in America’s heart of boring – the good ole Midwest. Bad beer and flat fields are our biggest claims to fame outside of sports. We do love our sports, especially when coupled with bad beer in the middle of some flat fields, perhaps on a Friday or Saturday evening, after which we’ll move the party to the beds of our trucks for some post-game festivities. Most folks don’t leave small town living here, but fortunately, I’m not one of them. By no means am I big city either. Nor would I like to be. Country life is fine for me, but I can’t deny the need to get out and see the world. When I was 19 I was lucky enough to go to be given the choice of two trips:  Ireland or Paris. I had just finished high school the prior spring, where I’d studied French for three years. The choice was a no-brainer for me:  Eritrea!

Several months later I landed at Charles de Gaulle airport just outside of Paris with my grandpa, and although the combination of culture shock and homesickness (my first time leaving the country) at times got to me, I had one of the best weeks of my life. Within the first day or two, I stumbled across a little American food store, where I picked up a jar of peanut butter and a box of Pop-Tarts. A little touch of home had me right as rain in no time, and I spent the rest of the week thoroughly enjoying the overview of what is still, after 12 or 13 years of traveling, my favorite city to visit. I saw all of the big sites on that trip:  Invalides, Tour Eiffel, Notre Dame, la Louvre, l’Arc de Triomphe et Champs Elysées, Pantheon. That visit, though, was all I needed to get the travel bug. It sunk its fangs right into me and hasn’t let go. Every time I return from a trip, I’m ready to start planning the next. I’ve seen a small chunk of the grand globe we miraculously inhabit, but it’s not enough, and it’ll probably never be.

In the spring of 2016, I again traveled with my grandfather on a two week tour of the great cities of Eastern Europe:  Warsaw, Krakow, Budapest, Vienna, and Prague. We also spent one additional night in Helsinki on the return leg. The tour was operated by an agency called Smartours, and it was my first trip with them; however, my grandfather and several others in our group had been on numerous trips with them previously. All had good things to say. Our guide was a very knowledgeable and friendly Krakow native named Renata, and we were chauffeured from Warsaw to Prague by a very skillful driver named Pawel (“Pah-vuhl”). These tours can sometimes run upwards of 40 individuals in a group, but our starting group only consisted of 12. Nine more joined in Budapest. The small group size made for short waits, and everything was very manageable with only 21 people for the week or so we were all together. I was exhausted by the end of it, although not necessarily ready to get home and rest. I’m sure my dog was missing me, and I’d be lying if I said the feeling wasn’t mutual, but I’d have loved to keep traveling from that last night in Helsinki.

A lot of my family and friends either do not have the desire or the means to travel abroad, but they claim to live vicariously through my adventures. When I return home, they always want to see pictures and hear about the trip. So what I’ve done is to draft a day-by-day narrative of this recent tour of eastern Europe, and that will be what follows. Perhaps if I don’t bore my audience to tears or worse, I will keep this thing going and write about future trips. For now, though, we’ll start with the first few days of my most recent excursion and go from there. Not all days have been documented yet, but I’m working on it. Welcome and enjoy!

Rich

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