Facebook Twitter



Every country in Eastern Europe is haunted and shaped by the same things, to differing degrees: tortured history, endlessly shifting borders, ethnic conflicts, intermittent warfare and, most recently, modern communism with all its economic problems and social restrictions.

Traveling in the East, a tourist feels all of these, along with other common themes that include black marketeering, shortages, waiting lines and - despite all the inconveniences - startlingly nice people, great architecture and stunning scenery.What this means is that the rewards of a trip to the Eastern bloc can be great, but so can the hassles.

Whatever happens to you there, good or bad, it will not be like home, and you'll have a much better trip if you don't expect it to be.

Approaching the end of a six-week trip through Eastern Europe during the summer, I made a list of what irritated me about the region. All were things I hadn't expected:

- Polluted skies and rivers. See that yellow fog hanging over Budapest (and Bucharest and Warsaw, just to name a few)? "You have to remember," a U.S. agriculturalist explained in Belgrade, "they're downwind from everything else in Europe."

- Empty stores. These are most notable in Romania and Poland, though with the exception of booming Budapest and to some extent pleasant Sofia, no part of Eastern Europe is characterized by much choice or abundance.

- Dim lighting. In Romania the reason given is avoidance of foreign debt; in other countries, it's shortages. Whatever the explanation, murky hotel lobbies, room lamps that can't be read by and sidestreets that look like London during a World War II blackout are normal.

- Other people's cigarette smoke. Despite the shortages, Eastern Europeans smoke like chimneys. "No smoking" sections in restaurants are nonexistent, and asking for one will get you stared at.

- Bad plumbing. Before you leave home, learn how toilets work - it's a safe bet you'll have to tinker with a couple, even if you stay in good hotels.

- Ugly gray apartment blocks. There's no scientific proof, but communism seems to correlate strongly with concrete.

- Street names that read like the last line of an eye-test chart. Unless you can sight-read names like "Nepkoztarsasag," "Piata Kogalniceanu" and "Slobodna Penezica Krcuna" at 30 or 40 mph - or unless you don't mind missing a lot of turns - consider not driving in the cities.

- Driving. Reasons for not driving in the countryside, either, include the high speeds favored by locals (especially in Romania and Yugoslavia); narrow roads (everywhere); mountains (especially in Yugoslavia's Montenegro district), and fuel shortages (especially in Romania, where gasoline is rationed, and Poland, where it's simply hard to find.)

- The black market. "Change money?" has become a common greeting for tourists in Czechoslovakia, Romania, Bulgaria and to some extent Hungary and Poland.

By now, you may think I'm complaining too much.

But there were many times when I thought Eastern Europe's rich benefits - grand architecture, beautiful scenery, nice people and cheap food - failed to outweigh that list of negatives.

So that your list of peeves ends up shorter than mine, here are some tips for getting the most out of travel in Eastern Europe:

- Take as much cash as you dare carry, and in small denominations. Don't take travelers' checks in amounts larger than $50. If you can stand to sign your name that often, $20 checks are even wiser.

There are several reasons to avoid changing large amounts of money: shortages of things to buy (you may not be able to spend all the money you change); the black marketeering that plagues most of the Eastern Bloc countries (you can't change the money back into dollars when you leave unless you can prove you didn't buy it on the black market), and - more than any other reason - rapid rates of inflation that may devalue the local currency you're holding before you can spend it.

- Be smart about the black market. Human greed will probably get the best of you, but be careful. Before you change money on the black market, know what the official rate is and shop around to find out what the best black-market rate is. Count the local currency you're given before you hand over your dollars - sometimes black-marketeers are out to cheat you, too, and not just their governments.

- Bring all personal essentials. If you don't, you risk getting caught up in the shortages-and-lines hassles that residents have to endure. So bring your own medicines (prescription drugs, of course, but also items as commonplace as aspirin), photographic film, personal hygiene supplies and, if you're venturing to smaller towns or staying in budget lodgings even in big cities, your own toilet paper. (And carry some with you when you leave your hotel for the day.)

- Remember that what's not essential at home may be in the East. Sink plugs, for example. They're often missing from sinks and tubs, even in good hotels. My lodgings in Warsaw and Gdansk had solved this problem by tying the plugs to the faucet with heavy-duty fishing filament. For hotels that are less creative, bring a one-size-fits-all sink plug. Better yet, bring two.

- Expect inconveniences. Ditto a generally lower level of service (and fewer smiles) than you'd get at home or in Western Europe. Under the communist system, job security hasn't been tied to performance, and you may get a good taste of that if you try to do something like check in early at your hotel.

Unless you take an escorted group tour (and sometimes even then), you should be prepared for such problems as delays, mistakes in travel arrangements, prepaid hotel rooms that aren't ready when you arrive and restaurants that don't have all (or even half) the foods listed on their menus.

If you're braced for them, you won't be as upset if they happen.

Remember, too, that the way these problems are handled will give you insights into local daily life: If something is unpleasant for you, the short-term visitor, what must it be like for full-time residents?