Popwar Goes Pikey

Photos by Oliver Barton

The term “Eastern Europe” is a bit misguiding. It refers more to political alignment than any geography, but generally speaking, it comprises nineteen independent states to the east of Berlin that were previously under the communist Soviet influence. Definitions aside, someone upstairs at Giant Distribution decided that it was time to see what skateboarding in this area had to offer. Kenny Reed had traveled in some parts of Eastern Europe, but for the majority of the trip we were going to rely on luck alone. The plan was for Kenny, Cairo Foster, Rob Gonzalez, Raymond Molinar, Jon Newport, filmer Mike Gilbert and I to arrive in each city, head straight for the downtown area, and stumble upon all the epic marble plazas that communism left behind for us to skate. It seemed like a fail-safe plan. The die was cast for an epic summer adventure.

Despite the fact they had been on tour for a month already, spirits were high when I first met the team in Sofia, Bulgaria. We stayed at Alex’s (a friend of Kenny’s from a previous trip) house, which was a gentle five-minute skate from the main spot in Sofia-a square called “NDK,” or the National Palace of Culture.

Erected in 1981 by the communist government, NDK has shops, restaurants, a cinema, theaters, and most importantly, a massive fountain in front of the main building. And being that it’s too expensive to run the fountains, it’s completely empty, leaving marble flat banks of varying sizes and banked ledges down flights of stairs.

The only downside was that NDK proved to be a serious skate magnet, and between the regular torrential downpours, we skated there all day every day without venturing elsewhere.

Varna, Bulgaria

We took an overnight bus ride to a seaside town on the Black Sea called Varna. One of the first things I noticed was that Bulgaria has a massive stray-dog population where packs of six or so dogs run about the town center, eating trash, barking really loud, and generally having a great time. Most of the dogs have a yellow plastic tag in their ear, which means that at some point the dog has been caught by the pound, given a check up, and registered on a database … and unfortunately for the dog concerned, had his crown jewels lopped off.

The most gangsta dogs would parade their tagless ears and intact doghood on the main strip at night whilst tearing into trash bags and noisily chasing other dog packs, completely oblivious to the fact that humans even exist. Man and beast in perfect harmony.

Bulgaria was also where we got heavily scammed for the first time. Kenny’s friend had told us that the taxi fare from the bus station to our hotel would be around two to three leva ($1.20 to $1.80), but upon arrival, our taxi driver demanded fifteen leva.

Travel tip number one: always agree on the taxi fare before you get into the cab. After a fairly heated argument and a never-to-be-repeated war face from Kenny, we were stung for ten leva each. Not to worry, though, at least it was seven in the morning, and we could grab some breakfast at the hotel-right? Well, there was food, I suppose. This was the first of several points on our trip when food presentations would make us feel like we were contestants on Fear Factor.

Bucharest, Romania

Romania was the first of the experimental stops on our trip. Bucharest, the capital of Romania, is a day’s train ride from Varna. No one really knew what to expect from Romania, but its reputation was not exactly outstanding. After traveling past dauntingly scaled rubbish dumps scattered with endless groups of people, birds, and domestic animals scavenging through the trash for anything vaguely edible or recyclable, we arrived at the train station and posted up at a restaurant. Our guidebook warned of “pirate” cab drivers and fake policemen who would take your wallet and passport, so we decided it would be best if the group stayed in the restaurant with all the bags while Cairo and I trieto find the hostel.

One tropical rain deluge, seventeen wrong turns, and one precisely wrong set of directions from a group of snide-smiling locals, we found ourselves following a random local man who spoke no English and led us in what appeared to be the wrong direction. When I saw some neighborhood kids spot him and start running, I began to worry-quite a lot.

Bucharest was doing little to dispel rumors of “pikeyness”-whatever the old man’s game was, he was up to something, and we did not fancy finding out what, so we cut the guy loose. Cairo took over the navigation and eventually we found the hostel on our own.

By this point we were soaked to the skin, but I was not really too worried about the downpour. I was more preoccupied by the rain of bullet holes that were sprayed randomly across the wall opposite our hostel, becoming extremely concentrated around one window on the fifth floor. Whoever tried to take out the occupant of that fifth-floor window had seriously bad aim, but plenty of bullets to get lucky with.

Still, the point of this trip was not lying on the beach in Monaco. Bullet holes in the walls added enough to our sense of purpose that we rose early the following morning and skated far and long across the city, looking for the epic spots that we had all been hoping for. We couldn’t find a thing, not even a ledge that could provide the photographic mainstay of weak tour articles-the token frontside noseslide on a ledge. As a last ditch effort we took the amazingly clean metro to a large park in the north of the city with our fingers triple crossed.

Things were looking up when we stumbled upon a Mountain Dew skatepark, but it became apparent very quickly that Rollerblading swamps skateboarding in Romania, so the chances of finding a skater who knew where there might be a spot looked somewhere between slim and none. An American-imported skateboard deck costs just over 100 dollars there, and the average monthly wage is 560 dollars, so it was going to take a little more than some Chinese wood to make skateboarding accessible in Romania. Combined with the fact that the life span of a set of Rollerblades far outweighs that of a skateboard, it seems like the boot will remain alive and kicking here for a while to come.

Things perked up when we saw a kid in a pair of Globes with ollie holes. He had snapped his board a couple of weeks earlier, so he was saving hard for a new deck, hanging out at the park and passing the time counting his pennies. He promised to take us to his best spots and telephoned his friends to come and help, but even with the best of intentions, we failed to register on the good skate-spot meter. It had been a long day-we were all pretty frustrated and hungry, and in a moment of desperation under intense pressure from Jon Newport, we broke down and ate at the Golden Arches.

We had come all the way to Romania and we were eating McDonald’s, so it was a well-deserved dose of karma when Ronald was the only person in the whole of Eastern Europe who gave me food poisoning-with billions served, you might’ve figured out how to cook a burger by now. As my first bite of semi-cooked chicken “McFresh” slid down my throat toward my unsuspecting stomach, I was cursing the fact that I had to eat this crap. As I sunk into bite two, a Romanian street boy, maximum twelve years old, picked Newport’s discarded burger box out of the trash and licked the ketchup off the bottom. I’m not sure if it was reality kicking in or a warning sign to stop eating my McFresh, but something felt strange in my stomach. Rob tried to hook him up with some food, only to see another street kid steal it off him.

The average winter temperature in Romania drops to minus-six Celsius or 26 Fahrenheit. Lurking on the street during the summer is one thing, but I wonder what that kid will be doing when winter hits?

Our new skate friends invited us to a barbecue party out in the suburbs-an invitation we gladly accepted. Several shots of Palinko (Romanian moonshine) later and the live ska was pumping through Rob G.’s veins as he strutted around the party dancing like the Bush Wacker from WWF.

It was almost time to leave, a deal that was sealed the next morning when Kenny and Popwar filmer Mike Gilbert woke up with strange patterns of red bite marks all over their bodies. The bites were bigger than your average mosquito chomp, and the concentric nature of the patterns reminded me more of alien-abduction marks than anything an insect could compose. A closer inspection of their beds and swarms of small black bugs, which looked like miniature beetles were having a field day in their sheets. We decided it was time to leave, so we made it through the rain to the station, and our train rumbled towards Budapest, Hungary.

Budapest, Hungary

After a long skate around Budapest-and a visit to the worst skatepark ever, which was frequented by the worst kids ever-we concluded that firstly, Budapest is one of the most classically beautiful cities in the world, and secondly, the pickings are anorexically slim in terms of skateable terrain. We had now gone a week without getting any real skating in, and everyone was beginning to question the feasibility of Popwar’s plan.

We had planned to stay another two days in Budapest, but the next morning Cairo rallied the troops and we rushed to make a noon train to Slovakia. The speed with which everyone packed and made it to the train station was remarkable, and we arrived with plenty of time to spare, but we had not bargained for a 30-minute line to get tickets. In a moment of confusion, some of us made it on the train while others did not. Some of us ended up on the platform watching our train pull majestically out of the station knowing that we had another seven hours of platform sitting before the next train.

Jon spoke at the wrong moment and got hit in the chest with a cheeseburger, but all in all the wait was not too bad, and by the time we were finding spots in Slovakia the next day, all was forgotten.

Bratislava, Slovakia

Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, had already given us five or six spots by lunchtime, and Mike took the Internet initiative and managed to contact a guy named Jan at Pogo, a local shop, to see if we could hook up with someone who could show us more. We met with the locals, and they showed us the spots we had found and told us there was nothing else apart from a diesel big four that formed the steps to a Russian mausoleum. Hmmm.

Skating memorials to thousands of dead soldiers can drain your credit at the bank of karma. We checked it out anyway, but the security hassle involved was immense, and no one really wanted to try their luck with the authorities.

At 4:00 p.m. on our second day in Bratislava, the entire group minus Cairo, experienced spontaneous synchronized meltdowns-who would save his for a couple of hours into that evening. I was almost proud of the unity that the group had developed as Raymond Molinar began whipping his board at a sculpture. Mike and I got heated over who knows what, Jon began slinging his board and screaming at the top of his lungs because one of our guides, No Fear man had gone back to the climbing wall with Jon’s only sweater in the back of his car, and Rob backed into an anxiety attack at the thought of everyone he left behind in Long Beach. We were as one. The only person smiling in this mess was Kenny, who was probably glad for us to experience the fact that being “The Traveler” is actually really hard work and definitely not glamorous in the slightest.

It was time to run to Poland, the best country in Eastern Europe and one that had more than one skateable skate spots. Before we left, Jan came through with Jon’s sweater, an act of kindness that all the team would like to thank him for-the alternative of listening to Jon talk about it for the next two weeks would have been hell. With the memory of missing the train in Budapeveral shots of Palinko (Romanian moonshine) later and the live ska was pumping through Rob G.’s veins as he strutted around the party dancing like the Bush Wacker from WWF.

It was almost time to leave, a deal that was sealed the next morning when Kenny and Popwar filmer Mike Gilbert woke up with strange patterns of red bite marks all over their bodies. The bites were bigger than your average mosquito chomp, and the concentric nature of the patterns reminded me more of alien-abduction marks than anything an insect could compose. A closer inspection of their beds and swarms of small black bugs, which looked like miniature beetles were having a field day in their sheets. We decided it was time to leave, so we made it through the rain to the station, and our train rumbled towards Budapest, Hungary.

Budapest, Hungary

After a long skate around Budapest-and a visit to the worst skatepark ever, which was frequented by the worst kids ever-we concluded that firstly, Budapest is one of the most classically beautiful cities in the world, and secondly, the pickings are anorexically slim in terms of skateable terrain. We had now gone a week without getting any real skating in, and everyone was beginning to question the feasibility of Popwar’s plan.

We had planned to stay another two days in Budapest, but the next morning Cairo rallied the troops and we rushed to make a noon train to Slovakia. The speed with which everyone packed and made it to the train station was remarkable, and we arrived with plenty of time to spare, but we had not bargained for a 30-minute line to get tickets. In a moment of confusion, some of us made it on the train while others did not. Some of us ended up on the platform watching our train pull majestically out of the station knowing that we had another seven hours of platform sitting before the next train.

Jon spoke at the wrong moment and got hit in the chest with a cheeseburger, but all in all the wait was not too bad, and by the time we were finding spots in Slovakia the next day, all was forgotten.

Bratislava, Slovakia

Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, had already given us five or six spots by lunchtime, and Mike took the Internet initiative and managed to contact a guy named Jan at Pogo, a local shop, to see if we could hook up with someone who could show us more. We met with the locals, and they showed us the spots we had found and told us there was nothing else apart from a diesel big four that formed the steps to a Russian mausoleum. Hmmm.

Skating memorials to thousands of dead soldiers can drain your credit at the bank of karma. We checked it out anyway, but the security hassle involved was immense, and no one really wanted to try their luck with the authorities.

At 4:00 p.m. on our second day in Bratislava, the entire group minus Cairo, experienced spontaneous synchronized meltdowns-who would save his for a couple of hours into that evening. I was almost proud of the unity that the group had developed as Raymond Molinar began whipping his board at a sculpture. Mike and I got heated over who knows what, Jon began slinging his board and screaming at the top of his lungs because one of our guides, No Fear man had gone back to the climbing wall with Jon’s only sweater in the back of his car, and Rob backed into an anxiety attack at the thought of everyone he left behind in Long Beach. We were as one. The only person smiling in this mess was Kenny, who was probably glad for us to experience the fact that being “The Traveler” is actually really hard work and definitely not glamorous in the slightest.

It was time to run to Poland, the best country in Eastern Europe and one that had more than one skateable skate spots. Before we left, Jan came through with Jon’s sweater, an act of kindness that all the team would like to thank him for-the alternative of listening to Jon talk about it for the next two weeks would have been hell. With the memory of missing the train in Budapest still fresh in our minds, we made it to the station with plenty of time to spare. Cairo had checked with the ticket counter, and our tickets could be bought on the train with a credit card, so we prepared ourselves in what was a pretty nice sleeper carriage. Mike had stocked us up on sandvicks (sandwiches) and things were looking good. A good night’s sleep and we would be eating pierogies in Warsaw by noon the following day.

For the amount of stress that this trip brought Cairo, I can’t really believe that he had not snapped earlier, but as we pulled out of the station I could hear Cairo’s raised voice. Somewhere along the lines, someone had told Cairo that we could buy tickets on the train, which was true, but the miserable sod in the conductor’s uniform did not accept credit cards in any way, shape, or form.

Between us we had enough cash to make it to the next station, a small village still in Slovakia where we would have to get off the train and wait until the morning when we could buy tickets from the ticket office.

There were no platform-side ATMs, no bribes, and no level of pleading that was going to get us out of the situation. For a few seconds it seemed that the only option open to Cairo was killing the conductor with his bare hands. Two guardian angels in the form of a couple of trilingual girls came to our rescue and found us a new conductor who somehow managed to frog-march Cairo to a ticket station and back before our train left the next station. Despite the fact that the majority of the fourteen-hour journey was spent in smoked-out trife class, we were over the moon to be on the train.

Warsaw, Poland

Polish people are the most resilient and resourceful group of people that I have ever met. Sitting right on the border of East and West, history continues to place Poland at the center of everyone else’s skirmishes. During WWII, Warsaw bore the brunt of Germany’s aggression. It lost two-thirds of its population and saw 83 percent of the city destroyed. When it came to rebuilding the Royal Palace and much of the center of old Warsaw at the end of the war, even the buildings that had housed plans and maps of the city had been completely destroyed, so an appeal was sent out for Poles to bring in paintings and photographs so that they could try and reconstruct what had been obliterated.

Warsaw is a bustling city undergoing massive regeneration and is also home to an amazing skate shop called DSK, which is run by two skaters called Cuba and Gutek who are really developing the local scene. After a couple of days of rain, we scored clear skies and met up in DSK where someone naughty had downloaded Justin Strubbing’s part in That’s Life off the Internet. Everyone was so hyped after watching it we went out and got four good tricks in the space of two hours, which I think is a pretty clear indicator of a good video part.

For the first time in a long time, we were reluctant to leave our host city, but we were heading to Poznan, which lay a little farther northwest than Warsaw and was home to a great-looking kinked Hubba that J.J. Rousseau had a frontside flip fakie nosegrind on in Skateboarder.

Poznan, Poland

We checked in to a beautiful old hotel, complete with ghosts in the corridor and prostitutes in the lobby. Kenny would not know about any of this as a communication barrier of sorts left him in jail overnight and well into the following evening. In the meantime, our Poznanian friend Jacek showed us the ropes, including the J.J. Hubba, which it turns out has an unnegotiable run-up. As Cairo paid Kenny’s bail in cash, the policeman at the station smiled and remarked how the money would be spent in the bar that night. At least he was honest. With Kenny out of jail, we had run out of “free time,” and it was time to make it to Germany for a week of shop signings and demos.

Germany

We spent the next eight days under far more comfortable conditions, guided by Ingo and Thomas from Limited maggazine. Attention shifted to the European Cup finals, a small event in which teams of eleven play each other in a series of games invented by the Chinese thousands of years ago. “The darkest hour ever for German football,” Thomas mourned, as the German national football team crashed out with a dismal performance, closely followed by England at the feet of the golden-booted Cristiano Ronaldo.

Germany turned into tour blur-a vortex of wake-up, demo, drive, hotel, wake-up, et cetera. Before we knew what had happened, we were in Gottingen, home of Clichà‡ pro Jan Kleiwer and the last real stop of the tour. We had been quite literally counting down the days left ’til the flight home, but when the parting moment came, we were all a little reluctant to say good-bye.

With the benefit of hindsight, we had been laughably naive to embark on our tour armed with nothing more than a Rough Guide travel book and good intentions. I wonder if anyone had questioned the feasibility of our plan, or if they just assumed like I did that someone else had checked everything out. Eastern Europe is not one of the most readily accessible areas in the world, and many of the countries have little or no grasp of English, so communication can be extremely hard. Anyone with food issues need not apply and you better be ready to clock some serious train time if you want to visit more than one country. We had all greedily imagined untouched heavenly terrain, and while we skated some incredible spots, what made them hard to skate is what it took to get there.

As I write this I have just learned that Kenny was jumped in Mongolia two days ago-I hope that you’re all right, bud.

The skate scene in Eastern Europe, while small in numbers, is extremely strong because the participants are so much more willing to skate than their Western counterparts that it feels like skating did in ’93. We were laughably naive to embark on our tour armed with nothing more than a Rough Guide travel book and good intentions. Looking back, I wonder if anyone ever questioned the feasibility of our plan, or if they just assumed like I did that someone else had checked everything out. Photographically speaking, we came out disappointingly empty-handed from several of the cities that we visited, but I think that I can speak for all the team when I say that the experience of traveling in these areas alone makes the hours of train hopping fueled by endless stale sandvick and general lack of creature comforts seem pretty irrelevant.

still fresh in our minds, we made it to the station with plenty of time to spare. Cairo had checked with the ticket counter, and our tickets could be bought on the train with a credit card, so we prepared ourselves in what was a pretty nice sleeper carriage. Mike had stocked us up on sandvicks (sandwiches) and things were looking good. A good night’s sleep and we would be eating pierogies in Warsaw by noon the following day.

For the amount of stress that this trip brought Cairo, I can’t really believe that he had not snapped earlier, but as we pulled out of the station I could hear Cairo’s raised voice. Somewhere along the lines, someone had told Cairo that we could buy tickets on the train, which was true, but the miserable sod in the conductor’s uniform did not accept credit cards in any way, shape, or form.

Between us we had enough cash to make it to the next station, a small village still in Slovakia where we would have to get off the train and wait until the morning when we could buy tickets from the ticket office.

There were no platform-side ATMs, no bribes, and no level of pleading that was going to get us out of the situation. For a few seconds it seemed that the only option open to Cairo was killing the conductor with his bare hands. Two guardian angels in the form of a couple of trilingual girls came to our rescue and found us a new conductor who somehow managed to frog-march Cairo to a ticket station and back before our train left the next station. Despite the fact that the majority of the fourteen-hour journey was spent in smoked-out trife class, we were over the moon to be on the train.

Warsaw, Poland

Polish people are the most resilient and resourceful group of people that I have ever met. Sitting right on the border of East and West, history continues to place Poland at the center of everyone else’s skirmishes. During WWII, Warsaw bore the brunt of Germany’s aggression. It lost two-thirds of its population and saw 83 percent of the city destroyed. When it came to rebuilding the Royal Palace and much of the center of old Warsaw at the end of the war, even the buildings that had housed plans and maps of the city had been completely destroyed, so an appeal was sent out for Poles to bring in paintings and photographs so that they could try and reconstruct what had been obliterated.

Warsaw is a bustling city undergoing massive regeneration and is also home to an amazing skate shop called DSK, which is run by two skaters called Cuba and Gutek who are really developing the local scene. After a couple of days of rain, we scored clear skies and met up in DSK where someone naughty had downloaded Justin Strubbing’s part in That’s Life off the Internet. Everyone was so hyped after watching it we went out and got four good tricks in the space of two hours, which I think is a pretty clear indicator of a good video part.

For the first time in a long time, we were reluctant to leave our host city, but we were heading to Poznan, which lay a little farther northwest than Warsaw and was home to a great-looking kinked Hubba that J.J. Rousseau had a frontside flip fakie nosegrind on in Skateboarder.

Poznan, Poland

We checked in to a beautiful old hotel, complete with ghosts in the corridor and prostitutes in the lobby. Kenny would not know about any of this as a communication barrier of sorts left him in jail overnight and well into the following evening. In the meantime, our Poznanian friend Jacek showed us the ropes, including the J.J. Hubba, which it turns out has an unnegotiable run-up. As Cairo paid Kenny’s bail in cash, the policeman at the station smiled and remarked how the money would be spent in the bar that night. At least he was honest. With Kenny out of jail, we had run out of “free time,” and it was time to make it to Germany for a week of shop signings and demos.

Germany

We spent the next eight days under far more comfortable conditions, guided by Ingo and Thomas from Limited magazine. Attention shifted to the European Cup finals, a small event in which teams of eleven play each other in a series of games invented by the Chinese thousands of years ago. “The darkest hour ever for German football,” Thomas mourned, as the German national football team crashed out with a dismal performance, closely followed by England at the feet of the golden-booted Cristiano Ronaldo.

Germany turned into tour blur-a vortex of wake-up, demo, drive, hotel, wake-up, et cetera. Before we knew what had happened, we were in Gottingen, home of Clichà‡ pro Jan Kleiwer and the last real stop of the tour. We had been quite literally counting down the days left ’til the flight home, but when the parting moment came, we were all a little reluctant to say good-bye.

With the benefit of hindsight, we had been laughably naive to embark on our tour armed with nothing more than a Rough Guide travel book and good intentions. I wonder if anyone had questioned the feasibility of our plan, or if they just assumed like I did that someone else had checked everything out. Eastern Europe is not one of the most readily accessible areas in the world, and many of the countries have little or no grasp of English, so communication can be extremely hard. Anyone with food issues need not apply and you better be ready to clock some serious train time if you want to visit more than one country. We had all greedily imagined untouched heavenly terrain, and while we skated some incredible spots, what made them hard to skate is what it took to get there.

As I write this I have just learned that Kenny was jumped in Mongolia two days ago-I hope that you’re all right, bud.

The skate scene in Eastern Europe, while small in numbers, is extremely strong because the participants are so much more willing to skate than their Western counterparts that it feels like skating did in ’93. We were laughably naive to embark on our tour armed with nothing more than a Rough Guide travel book and good intentions. Looking back, I wonder if anyone ever questioned the feasibility of our plan, or if they just assumed like I did that someone else had checked everything out. Photographically speaking, we came out disappointingly empty-handed from several of the cities that we visited, but I think that I can speak for all the team when I say that the experience of traveling in these areas alone makes the hours of train hopping fueled by endless stale sandvick and general lack of creature comforts seem pretty irrelevant.

ited magazine. Attention shifted to the European Cup finals, a small event in which teams of eleven play each other in a series of games invented by the Chinese thousands of years ago. “The darkest hour ever for German football,” Thomas mourned, as the German national football team crashed out with a dismal performance, closely followed by England at the feet of the golden-booted Cristiano Ronaldo.

Germany turned into tour blur-a vortex of wake-up, demo, drive, hotel, wake-up, et cetera. Before we knew what had happened, we were in Gottingen, home of Clichà‡ pro Jan Kleiwer and the last real stop of the tour. We had been quite literally counting down the days left ’til the flight home, but when the parting moment came, we were all a little reluctant to say good-bye.

With the benefit of hindsight, we had been laughably naive to embark on our tour armed with nothing more than a Rough Guide travel book and good intentions. I wonder if anyone had questioned the feasibility of our plan, or if they just assumed like I did that someone else had checked everything out. Eastern Europe is not one of the most readily accessible areas in the world, and many of the countries have little or no grasp of English, so communication can be extremely hard. Anyone with food issues need not apply and you better be ready to clock some serious train time if you want to visit more than one country. We had all greedily imagined untouched heavenly terrain, and while we skated some incredible spots, what made them hard to skate is what it took to get there.

As I write this I have just learned that Kenny was jumped in Mongolia two days ago-I hope that you’re all right, bud.

The skate scene in Eastern Europe, while small in numbers, is extremely strong because the participants are so much more willing to skate than their Western counterparts that it feels like skating did in ’93. We were laughably naive to embark on our tour armed with nothing more than a Rough Guide travel book and good intentions. Looking back, I wonder if anyone ever questioned the feasibility of our plan, or if they just assumed like I did that someone else had checked everything out. Photographically speaking, we came out disappointingly empty-handed from several of the cities that we visited, but I think that I can speak for all the team when I say that the experience of traveling in these areas alone makes the hours of train hopping fueled by endless stale sandvick and general lack of creature comforts seem pretty irrelevant.