Monday, August 18, 2014

My Road Along the Danube

I’m not sure I had ever heard of the Danube River before I came here; certainly I had never remembered its’ name. I didn't know that it was wide and engulfing like the Mississippi I know so well, or I would be following it south through the heart of Europe and using it to piece together the history of this region.

From Regensburg, to Vienna, east to Bratislava, southeast still to Budapest and down to Belgrade, I’ve darted back and forth across this wide, brown river for a month, through what I found to be one of my favorite regions I’ve ever traveled through.

The Danube River's course
When I’m traveling I find myself always balancing the urge to really stay somewhere and get to know the place and people with the desire to see more and more cities, to hit the road again and check off the next place. Throughout Central Europe I’ve really only been skimming my hand along the surface of history and culture, stopping in the capital, going on the two and a half hour free walking tour, taking a photo of the most important buildings, soaking in an understanding of that place which I’m sure will muddle and be lost from my memory in a few months. But in the moment, while I’m in the city center, it adds the narrative I need to all the bells (from Catholic Cathedrals in the north, to Orthodox Cathedrals beginning in Belgrade and finally Mosques in Sofia), the ancient stonework, the buildings hugging cobblestones, strangely gaping with modern hair dressers and clothing stores.

I’m a storyteller, after all. None of this means anything to me without the story.

 The river in Regensburg, Germany
Each place I’ve been widens the context for the last and next country I’m stopping in. Like a patchwork where the cities hinge upon one another: beginning with stories of the Holy Roman Empire, which always holds hands and pulls you south to the the Hapsburgs, where you hear rumors of the Turks on borders, then come face to face with battlegrounds, the cities where they were held at bay, then the places the Ottomans occupied for hundreds of years. More recently, different stories of Communism sweep this land. I've been fascinated by the differing tones people use when speaking of the Russians and the different narratives of whether there was scarcity or surplus 40 years ago. Each country’s story of independence, of the many names and states they’ve lived under in the last century, make my head spin delightfully. 

Suddenly before Sofia, the river has cut east, along the Romanian border, to the Black Sea. Here the Greeks, the Slovaks and the Turks meet, and the story takes a new tune, which I will follow southwest into Greece, finally coming to Istanbul in a month.

Trains, buses, beers, wine, bridges, photo after photo only remarkable because of the folder I remember to put it in within my computer’s hard drive. Strange to think I spent so much time running my fingers over maps, planning and counting days and hours, trying to anticipate, give myself enough time between and around. And here I am.

In Budapest, Hungary
I’ve been thinking lately about how I feel, how many of the emotions and experiences I’m having are new but stable and joyful for me. It reminds me suddenly of one of my Papa’s favorite stories, from when I was about three years old and he was watching me dance around our living room in Clover Valley, round and round the coffee table on my stick pony. I was completely absorbed and delighted, always a child somewhere else, deep in imaging a different world.

“Katy,” my papa asked me that day. I stopped and looked at him. “Will I ever be as happy as you are?”

I didn’t even think for a moment. “No!” I said, with certainty and continued my skipping game.

I’ve asked myself lately if I’ll ever be as centered and happy in the particular way I’ve felt traveling along the Danube ever again. And that little girl says to me, just as seriously as before, “No! You won’t!”

Maybe it doesn’t really matter, though. Maybe different kinds of happiness are for different parts of our lives anyway and it’s better to love whatever happy we’ve got when it comes to us. To know and to open ourselves up to all the contours and corners of this life of ours, wherever we end up at any given time. I’ll be happy in a new way some other time, I know.

Looking across the Danube from Bratislava Castle
This Central European contentedness, it’s special, and I’m excited to have gotten it for the last month. 

Saturday, August 16, 2014

The Night Train

Waiting to get on the train, Belgrade.
Traveling the world sounds so fun and amazing until you are on an overnight train through Eastern Europe. Begging all of the gods the universe has ever prayed to that no one will take the seat next to you so that you have a chance of sleeping. Watching a couple and their huge German Shepherd say goodbye in the aisle next to you, and not really being sure if the woman will miss that dog or her boyfriend more – she’s kissing both with the same longing. Being jabbed awake with a flat hand to the rib cage over and over again by Russian-sounding, fat men. “Tickets!” “Passport control!”

Really, there’s not been much to say about my transit experiences so far. Western Europe is too comfortable for a good story.

The three Germans who ended up taking over the end of the carriage all around me are making me wonder again and again why I didn’t ask the price difference for a sleeper. How much more could it really have been? They are drinking beer after beer, pulling fresh cans from their bags each time they finish and crush the empty can under their feet. They seem intent on getting wasted before any of the beers get cold, and their voices rise accordingly. One goes into the bathroom shortly after we pull out of the Belgrade train station at 9:50, and returns sniffing wildly for the next ten minutes.

No one has sat next to me, and I lay my head onto my black bag, crunching my body between what is barely two airplane seats. In the precious bag is my purse, my laptop, my camera, the cords for all of my electronics and various other necessities like pill bottles, a hair brush and my glasses case. It’s a shit pillow.

Its moments like these that a boyfriend would really be a nice addition to the trip: lap laying privileges and a stable hand on my shoulder while I drift under the flickering, but never dark, florescent lights. But still, the bag has to go somewhere, and after a deluge of rain just before we left Belgrade, the floor of the train is a map of rivers and lakes of dirty water, crawling across the floor with each shift and shake of the train. Napkins and papers dropped by other passengers have grown soggy and collected near my door, in a wet pile.

In each Serbian town throughout the night, made more obscure by the dark outside and the light in the carriage, we screech to a stop and the doors don’t open unless passengers throw their whole weight against them with a grunt or a panicked yelp. The Germans have all fallen asleep, including the one I briefly worried had snorted some cocaine a few hours ago. Every 45 minutes or so, my hips and arms groan to wake me and I stiffly sit up and move the black bag to the other side of the bench to flip over, rearranging the cords and other various lumps within the bag.

The sun rises around the time we’ve at the border with Bulgaria, where we wait for the Serbian then the Bulgarian authorities to take our passports, sort through them somewhere else, stamp them and bring them back. Heavy headed, I gaze out the window at the other trains also waiting at the border, the people in sleeper cars leaning their heads out the windows and chatting with passengers from our train.

We finally begin moving again, but the train is going so slow you can see cars on the roads nearby passing us by. I wonder if we’ve been at this pace all night long. “Bicycling would have been faster,” one of the Germans snorts, then asks me if I took trains in Germany, wanting to be sure I know they are not like this everywhere in Europe.

In the heat of an August day in the Balkans, two hours behind schedule, I push out of the platform in Sofia, passed the hawkers “Information madame? Information please?” and into the most Soviet train station I’ve seen yet in the region.

My head is spinning with the heat, exhaustion and loss of direction in a new country with yet another new alphabet. I can’t rally as well after a poor night sleep – I’m getting older, I think. Just get to the hostel. Just get the bag off, I tell myself. Coffee and the bathroom can wait. (As a side note, I think one of the most impressive things I’ve done on this trip is get into a bathroom stall with my 35lb pack still cinched round my waist and the black bag hanging from my shoulder, gotten my pants off, stood up and hiked the pants back up again.)

I didn’t plan this part of the trip. I was supposed to be WWOOFing in Bulgaria but a miscommunication left me to plot my own way rather last minute; and a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants traveler I am not. I don’t have any hostels booked here in Sofia, but I do have one in mind and a google maps dotted line pointing me from the train station to their front door in the photos of my iPhone. After probably being ripped off for a metro ticket, then wandering the streets named after Bulgarian politicians for another 15 minutes, I find the tiny door to the hostel hidden between grey apartment buildings.

I get into the lobby, where a tired young mother is breast feeding her baby at the computer. I drop my bags and sit down across from her, pulling my tank top away from my skin and my glasses off my face as they fog up from my body heat.

I try to explain my haughty attitude by saying "I was on the night train from Belgrade." She looks at me meaningfully. I don't think I'm the only tourist on this road.

They have a bunk in the 4 bed dorm for the next two nights, with the widest hostel beds in the Balkans.

I get a cup of coffee and a delicious vegetarian meal at the local bakery. Really, the night wasn’t so bad. And I definitely don’t feel so old anymore. I really didn’t need the sleeper.

Friday, August 15, 2014

"Wait, I do know that guy"

In Belgrade, Aleksandra’s (my couchsurfing host) mom told me, in broken English, “In Serbia we built our houses close to the road.”

Serbia is at the cross roads of everything, it seems: East and West, Turkey, Rome and the Habsburgs. They’ve seen (and fought off) a little of everything throughout the centuries, the Serbs, but at a cost. “Everyone is walking on the road. There is much war close to the road.” She holds her hand over her head, as far as she can reach “This much war. It is better to build your house away from the road.”

Serbia is a place I know next to nothing about. I was surprised when our tour guide and my couch surfing host said they were alive when the city was bombed most recently, less than 20 years ago. In Belgrade you can still see the husks of buildings bombed out by NATO. I hardly know about the breakup of Yugoslavia, but Serbia is surrounded by places that feel heavy with danger and war in my biased mind: Bosnia, Kosovo. I imagine that the guttural reaction I have to these names is similar to what people in my parent’s generation are feeling when they grimace after I announce that one day I’d like to go to Vietnam and Cambodia.

One thing I learned quickly about Belgrade: they really, really love to eat meat. Even by the end of the second day, if I had to eat one more thing that was mostly a meat dish, I felt like I would be sick. It brought back memories of living in Venezuela and sighing as another steak came before me at lunch time. On our second night in town, Aleksandra and I got dinner together at the ? pub. (The pub across from the Cathedral wanted to name its’ self “The Pub Across from the Cathedral” but the Orthodox church leaders would have none of that, so the pub’s response was to call itself “?” – the Serbs are tongue and cheek like that.) It’s a traditional Serbian restaurant which means almost entirely meat.

“How about a salad of cheese, tomatoes and cucumbers, and we’ll share the two-person mixed meat special?” Aleksandra offers. I feel like my stomach is a rock from all of the meat I’ve eaten lately, but when in Rome, right?

Do I look exhausted from meat eating? I sure felt it.
But, the two person meat tray? It had 3 chicken breasts, 6 small sausages, 2 long spicy sausages, 2 steaks, 2 burgers, and some other red meat I didn’t know.

I dove in slowly and deliberately, forcing my body to take in the red meat, even as it protested. Meat is the only food that my body will actively disagree with while I chew: sometimes I have to work not to gag when I’ve had too much. Slowly, I had eaten maybe a third, but probably less of the plate. Aleksandra, the tall, skinny, sandy blonde had eaten her half easily.

“But I thought you said you were hungry?” she asked, when I said I didn’t think I could eat any more. I can’t tell if she’s slightly offended or just confused and I feel a rush of guilt. I should eat more we paid for it, but as I look back to that bit of steak on my plate my body seizes up. A traditional Serbian band of accordions and fiddles has just shown up in the court yard and more and more people are showing up to the restaurant. It’s better not to throw up right now. I try to not to feel guilt about it.

“I’m sorry – I just don’t normally eat this much meat!”

She shrugs and we pay. While I try to forget my inability to eat more meat, we walk across the river to New Belgrade, where we are meeting her friends at the Belgrade Beer Festival. Aleksandra points out several landmarks along the road and the riverside, telling me stories from her own life as well as the life of Belgrade. It’s why I love couch surfing.

The view of Old Town from across the river.
When I hear beer festival, I imagine a big tent, maybe two, a plethora of tables and a lot of people laughing and drinking beer together. Maybe there’s a band playing quietly in the corner. But as we’re crossing the bridge I realizing there are hundreds of people walking across as well, and the crowd is swelling and swelling as we move away from the business parks and into a large field. In the distance, you can hear the loud thumping of a concert base.

I realize that this is Belgrade and all that I’ve only hear one thing about this city on the road: Belgrade is a huge, amazing, all night party. Not a laid back, German-style beer festival under the stars. As we pay the roughly 3 Euro to get in, walk through the security with bag checks and metal detectors, I see open before us three state-of-the-art concert stages (one will shoot off smoke and fire in a few hours), dozens of beer stands and twinkling rides, I realize I maybe should have expected this. Thousands of people are milling between the stages, laughing, drinking and pushing their way through the crowds.

The most amazing thing about all of this is the city of Belgrade puts it on. For 4 full nights, there are 50 brands (of beer) and 50 bands. The first night, the night we went, you pay 300 dinar, but it’s really just a symbol. It doesn’t even begin to cover the costs and the rest of the weekend is free. I’m in shock and keep saying “This would be at least $75, $100 in the United States, more for the whole weekend!”

We find Aleksandra’s friends near the Amstel booth. They are all trained doctors, but Aleksandra has left Serbia to finish her specialization in Germany (she’s on her summer holiday right now) because it’s nearly impossible to be hired at a hospital here, even with a medical degree. In fact, Aleksandra and her friends spend years volunteering in hospitals around the city, in the Emergency Room for example, hoping they will work hard enough to one day be hired.

On the main stage is a Serbian rock band – “for little girls and grandmas” Yelena, one of Aleksandra’s friends tells me, rolling her eyes at the chorus of the song, which she translates to “Love, I still believe in you!” This is clearly beloved and classic Serbian rock: as the first notes are hit of each song everyone screams and cheers, then looks at each other meaningfully, raising their fists in the air and singing along, much like many-a-crowd whom I’ve sung and danced with to Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing”.

This band finishes and a large black man, wearing a skin-tight red jump suit with sequins takes the stage, surrounded by his sexy ladies wearing similar suits and playing the guitar. I’m 99% sure he’s not Serbia.

“Hello Serbia!” The crowd is screaming. “Show me some love, Serbia!” He’s definitely American.

If you have spent any time with me talking popular culture, you probably know that I don’t have a bit of a clue who is famous right now, and couldn’t pick most people out in a line up. But you get famous enough and once you start singing, I’m going to know that I at least have heard and sung to your music before.

That’s how I saw Cee Lo Green live for about $3 in Serbia.

Once he starts singing I’m dancing and jumping with all the Serbians, shouting “I see you riding around town with the girl I love and I’m like, fuck you!”

The closest I’ve come to partying in Europe thus far was the night Jezelle and I went out in Vienna for our Air Force roommate’s birthday. We had met a whole bunch of other travelers on the walking tour we did that day and Michael told us we should all go their hostel bar because it was a better party atmosphere. I planned on getting one drink so that I wasn’t a lame party pooper, then heading home. I ended up staying till late, but while everyone else did shots and Jaggerbombs at the bar, I sat back at the table drinking wine and talking to a well-traveled Dutch man who had just lived in Taiwan for a year. The only escalation of the night was out voices as the music got louder and louder.

But if you are only going to really go out once in Europe, Serbia is the place to do so. Warm, fun and always up for a party, the Serbs have made Belgrade into a really awesome place to stay up all night drinking and dancing. You could be in abandoned buildings, on boats in the river or in a bar in the Bohemian Quarter; whatever you fancy, there’s a party on each.

Every few hours during the concerts that night, I think about the time, I feel the aches in my limbs that have carried me around the city all day, I feel that heavy leaden ball of meat in my stomach, I wonder about the 45 minutes it will take us to get back to Aleksandra’s parent’s house. Then I tell my brain to shut the hell up, forget about that crap and dance right now.

I really enjoyed Serbia. As I’ve said, the Serbs were incredibly friendly and fun. Everywhere you go, the streets are lined with cafes and bars full of people. I was sitting in a café and a group of girlfriends asked me to take their pictures, twice over an hour. They insisted on buying me a beer after the second photo. All of that being said, I could never see myself living in Belgrade, or even staying much longer than a few days. It’s the sort of place I enjoyed dipping my feet into, tasting the lifestyle at the edges.

But that’s enough for me – I frankly don’t think I could stomach or keep up with it.

Why I Extended My Stay in Budapest

I had thought I’d like Budapest, sure. It looked beautiful – domes, churches, the river – and who can argue with a city where it’s a part of the culture to soak in warm or cold water in ancient and ornate bath houses?

I had no idea.

From the moment I left Magda’s apartment for the first time, free of that god-awful pack (fine, fine I’ll admit it: I definitely brought too many clothes. Next time: less t-shirts, more underwear), I already felt excited. Her apartment is on the 2nd story, overlooking the inner courtyard of the building, where a Indian restaurant simmers delicious curries all day long below. The spiraling stairs had once been grand, now the tiles along the walls are fading, but taking the long sweeping turns, touching the intricate metal banister made me feel invigorated and alive.

We walked into the cooling afternoon, towards the Danube, and turned left to see the grand St. Stephen’s Basilica, named after the first true king of Hungary – and the home of his holy right hand, mummified and encased in one of the back chapels.

We climbed the winding stairs quickly, sweating and breathing heavily between banter; it’s hard to stop talking about you’ve not seen someone for six years. We reached the top of the central dome of the basilica and stepped out onto the balcony just as the wind was picking up, sending most of the other tourists indoors. From the east we could see a storm coming in, lightning beginning to dance along the horizon and rain fogging our view of the outer reaches of the city. To the west we saw the Danube and Buda, the hills of houses and churches still glimmering in the sunlight.

Just before the rain came
As the rain started whipping around the domes and spires of the basilica, Magda and I looked at one another and laughed, delighted, feeling the energy of the storm spraying and lashing around us. This introduction to the beautiful and vibrant Budapest woke my soul up quickly and set the tone for my fantastic three and a half days there.

How Long: I arrived from Bratislava (2.5 hours away by bus) midday on Wednesday and left early Sunday morning, extending my trip by a day, when I was originally planning to leave on Saturday. I just felt so inspired and happy there, I couldn’t pull myself out quite that soon.

What I did: As you can read about in this post, my friend Magda who I worked with in Yellowstone National Park six years ago just moved to Budapest to get her PhD. It was perfect because we were able to be tourists together! It was great to reconnect and discover the city together. I’m so jealous she gets to live here for the next 2-3 years!

We began our time with the Free Walking Tour of the city, visiting all of the main sights along the Danube in both Pest and Buda (the official name of the city is a combination of the two neighborhoods on either side of the river). This was one of the most uphill walking tours I’ve done so far, as we climbed the entire hill up to the Royal Palaces and Fisherman’s Bastion in Buda. The views are well worth it up there, though. This tour group also offers walking tours of the Jewish Quarter and Communism Tours in the afternoons, taking you to other parts of the city and exposing more specific sides of the history here. With all local guides, I’m sure these both would be interesting options.

Looking towards Buda from Pest, crossing the Danube

We wandered the Jewish Quarter as well, reviling in the small tree-lined streets full of cafes, modern coffee shops and ruin pubs. The ruin pubs are a new phenomenon sparking up in Hungary: the empty, ruined remains of houses or businesses are turned into pubs, filled with a very alternative feeling, graffiti, locals and tourists. The Jewish Quarter (like most cities in this part of the continent) was once the Jewish slums, now turned into a posh residential neighborhood bearing very little of the namesake history besides a few synagogues. Budapest boasts the most spectacular synagogue in all of Europe – the second largest in use in the world, and there is a museum inside commemorating the local victims of the Holocaust.

Gellert Bath house
There are 6 Turkish and Hungarian bath houses in Budapest, and I chose to spend a day at Gellert, a Hungarian bath house featuring art deco rooms surrounded by statues, an outdoor wave pool and a hotel if you want to be real fancy. I wish I could have stayed longer and sampled a few more, but a word to the wise: bring a swimming cap if you have one so that you don’t have to rent one in the indoor baths!

Budapest is full of museums and green space and places to wander, but I found myself feeling so inspired that I ended up working on my book most of my third day, setting up shop in a coffee and wine shop and drinking a lot of espresso.

After Budapest I spent a few days southwest in the city of Pécs (pronounced paich – Hungarian is completely impenetrable to me), a very pleasant and historic town with a lot of vibrant young people. It was named a European Capital of Culture in 2010. With an interesting cultural quarter, featuring a plethora of museums and cafes, as well as and old town with the most beautiful cathedral I’ve ever seen and Roman and Turkish ruins, Pécs is certainly worth a trip.

The Central Square of Pécs, Hungary

Ancient Turkish city walls and the Cathedral in Pécs
A note, however: I had hoped to travel from Pécs to Novi Sad or Belgrade in Serbia, but there was virtually no way to do this without changing busses or trains 5-7 times, and even in the Budapest train station some of the clerks did not speak English so I was not interested in playing a game of getting lost in that maze. This meant I needed to take the 3 hour train ride back to Budapest and then back track south 6 hours to Belgrade, spending a whole day on trains and busses. BLEH.

Where I Stayed: Magda has a great apartment just a few blocks from St. Stephen’s Cathedral – probably a better location than any hostel, honestly, and with my own shower and laundry facilities!

In Pécs I stayed at the Nap Hostel, a great location with incredibly helpful staff (we all suffered through trying to figure out the buses and trains into Serbia together) and directly over a nice bar where many young locals hang out every night. The first night I was there, a French band, featuring a chorus of male trombone, saxophone and trumpet players with a beautiful woman singing out front performed, bringing the whole town out and filling the street on what could have been an otherwise quiet Sunday night.

What I Ate: Not much to report here. Hungarian wine is really good, and I enjoyed a few tastes of that, but I didn’t have much traditional food from the area. Magda and I cooked a lot of spaghetti and she made me some very good traditional Romanian dishes!

Total Costs: Of course having a place to stay and a friend to cook food with brought down the costs pretty dramatically. As a capital city with so much history and beauty, the hostel prices seemed to be somewhere in between Prague and Vienna, with food and drinks being relatively cheap as long as you keep to the golden rule I’ve mentioned before: The Closer You Are to the Danube, The More the Food Will Cost.

What I wish I Knew: Some important tips I learned about Hungary:
-        Central Europe is tipping land unlike France and other European countries. If you are paying for your meal/drink and you hand the waiter cash and say “Thank you” you are telling him/her that you don’t want change, no matter how big that bill is. If you do want change from the bill, wait till they give the change back and then hand them the tip you want to give and say “Thank you” then.
-        Turkish baths and Hungarian baths are different things with different feelings. Do you research to make sure you get the one you want (i.e., you want to be outside in a wave pool? You want to be naked around people of only your sex? You want to have the options of enjoying several different temperature options?)

-        When you walk into a bar and the Hungarians say “See ya” they are saying hello, not get outta here. 

Saturday, August 9, 2014

48 Hours in Slovakia

I arrived in Slovakia and texted my mom “Made it to Bratislava!” Her response was “Where? What country is that?”

This seems to be the central problem of Slovakia. No one knows where or who this country is since they split from the Czech Republic. George W. Bush was there during this presidency and congratulated Slovenia on their democratic state after so many years of Communism. Major international newspapers have even published maps featuring Slovenia in their place, or simply Czechoslovakia.

The Slovaks are not impressed, world.

Nearly every Slovak person I met asked me that if I liked Slovakia, would I please tell everyone I know to come and visit the country and see for themselves why it is so great? After the movie The Hostel came out, telling the (made up) story of several international travelers who wanted cheap beer and hot girls in Slovakia then were murdered brutally, tourism here went down 75%! I am here to tell you that nothing remotely horrible happened to me in Slovakia, and I had more than one person tell me they would personally sew me back up if I was axe murdered.

Not only did I not hate my time in Slovakia, I loved it! Friendly, beautiful, laidback and full of history, Bratislava is a must-see if you are in the area, even if you can’t stay more than a half day. And they make it very easy to come from Vienna, by bus, train or boat, or if you are taking the bus from Prague to Budapest it’s along all the routes.

The old North Gate into Bratislava, the old remaining city gate.
How Long: I took the 50 minute bus from Vienna to Bratislava on a Sunday and left on another bus to Budapest (2 and a half hours away) on Wednesday. (Note: this is longer than most people stay in Bratislava, and you can see all the major sites in much less time.)

What I did: Free walkingtours are my best friends! Bratislava is a very small city center, but this great tour was still 2½ hours long and full of great information and history. You really can see all of Bratislava and grab a plate of food in a few hours, if you really wanted to, but I don’t see any reason to rush, personally.

I would recommend avoiding an arrival on Monday, when all of the museums are closed and shops don’t open up till late. Even the pub crawl offered by our free walking tour was not operating on Mondays. Any other day of the week you’ll find the town much busier.

Bratislava main square

The Blue Church, an incredible work of art. 
Along the Danube, with winding and cobbled streets, you can find great food for cheap prices, lots of shops and museums including interactive exhibits with costumed locals. There are the remnants of the old town gates, the cathedral where the Hungarian kings were crowned centuries ago and cannon balls in the sides of the town hall where Napoleon’s troops bombed. The city is full of modern contradictions though: you can climb the hill to the newly-fully renovated Bratislava Castle and see across the river to the Communist suburbs, where miles of blocky high rises remind you of another era, not so recently passed. It was determined that Prague should remain the historic center of Czechoslovakia and Bratislava the industrial, so as you walk along you’ll pass beautiful 18 Century opera houses and ornate churches, right next to Soviet-era abandoned hospitals, covered in graffiti and statues of the working man. But there are beautiful, tree-lined and busy central squares to wander, filled with bean bag chairs and music in the evenings.

Across from the Blue Church, an abandoned Soviet hospital
I also found my way to a little stall in front of the state Opera House, featuring a different Slovak wine maker each week, where you can taste the wine (a full glass!) for a single Euro. I had a great conversation one evening with the young wine maker from the eastern side of Slovakia about wine making, California, Slovakia and traveling.

The view from Trenčín Castle
On my second day, I took the 1 ½ hour train ride to Trenčín, a smaller city north east of Bratislava. It was a little cooler in the foothills of the mountains (also, I was told that if I was staying longer and wanted to hike and camp, the mountains of Slovakia are amazing places to explore) and this little gem is not to be missed. A tiny little old town, but bustling with life and people in the summer, Trenčín also features a huge castle fortress in the hills above the city.

My sweet little 13 year old heart just about exploded, wandering around this castle, nearly empty of tourists at this time of day. Unfortunately there were no guided tours in English and not too many signs around the grounds with information about what I was looking at, but wandering up spiraling staircases to the top of the towers, with flags whipping in the air and amazing views of the whole valley below – well it was a magical experience for me. This was the sort of castle of my day dreams, ancient but not cold, and I could feel the life that would have existed here.

Trenčín Castle from the City Center.
Where I stayed: I stayed at the Patio Hostel, just outside of Old Town. A great location (close to Old Town, but a little bit of a walk from the main train and bus stations, be aware), with a nice outside area for sitting and drinking, as well as a bar downstairs. I was in a 4 person mixed dorm for a great price, and enjoyed a very comfortable bed. One of their greatest features is free laundry, however since it’s a rare gem, the laundry room was FULL of drying laundry hanging from every surface.

What I ate: Traditional Slovakian food is by far my favorite so far on this trip! The Bryndzové halušky is tiny curd-like dumplings drenched in creamy sheep cheese with dill and bacon on top. It’s like the saltiest, creamiest gnocchi and cheese you can imagine! Rich and heavy, I ate it every day.  You can also get a wide array of dumplings, pierogis and fruit-based highly alcoholic liquors. Make sure you go to Slovak Pub just outside of Old Town Bratislava, where you’ll find good priced, tasty, traditional dishes, in rooms designed to look like houses and countryside pubs celebrating centuries of Slovak history. Also, as in all cities along the river, follow the golden rule: The Closer You Are to the Danube, The More the Food Will Cost.

Total Costs: Slovakia, like much of Central Europe, is cheap. The minimum wage here is only 2 Euro an hour, so especially if you are not in a tourist trap you’ll find things very cheap. The hostel was around $15 a night, full meals were about $6 without beer and beer/wine was about $1.50 for a glass. The train to and from Trenčín was about $17 in total. Getting from here to Budapest was a little over $10!

What I Wish I’d Known: I was a little nervous at first because I’d booked my hostel for 3 nights when everyone around me seemed to only be staying one, maybe two tops. But I’ve learned that I love not huge, but vibrant cities where I can learn some history and wander, then read a book by the river for a few hours. If you are looking for a huge night life, there is certainly some in Bratislava but you’ll probably quickly want to go back to a bigger city like Prague or Budapest.

Language is becoming more and more of a problem for me, though English speakers were not too hard to find. At least in Germany I could say “Danke!” but the sounds are more and more impenetrable every country south I go. This was more of a problem in Trenčín than Bratislava, and I imagine as one moves east it would be even worse. 

Sitting on the old fortress walls of Trenčín Castle, overlooking the city and valley.

“I am Not Afraid of Loneliness”

“And where is the group you travel with?” Camile, the Slovakian wine maker I’ve been chatting with for the last hour asks me. We’ve been swapping stories about wine regions, tastes and favorite places in the world. I was just relaying (for the one hundredth time this week) where I’ve been and where I will be going next.

“I’m alone! Not with a group.” I laugh, sipping again at the very sweet white wine he has poured for me.

“Alone!? Wow, this is crazy!” he shakes his head. “You must be a very interesting woman to travel so far alone.”
I’m always proud of myself (cautiously, in a don’t-get-ahead-of-yourself Minnesotan way) when I receive this response for traveling the world alone, because I do feel interesting and courageous. It’s a little unbelievable to people that I’m actually on my own, and I kind of love it.

And I’m not just alone because I couldn’t find a friend who could come the whole way with me. I’m really really loving traveling on my own. Don’t get me wrong, it was wonderful to spend a week with my dear friend Jezelle in Prague and Vienna: we travel well together, want most of the same things from a trip and feel like going to bed or heading to a bar usually around the same time. When the group we were hanging out with after our walking tour of Vienna began to bug us, we both knew at the same time and slipped out to do our own thing.

But there is something about being on my own right now that feels so right. I feel like I am selfish in a very healthy and undeniably right way at this time in my life. There are moments – when I got off the bus in Bratislava at the wrong stop – that I feel a wave of worry. But never have I wished someone was with me to help me deal with the problem. I just shifted my backpack on my hips, found a coffee shop nearby with internet and got walking directions on Google Maps (ah, smart phones). Turns out I was closer to the hostel than I would have been at the main bus station.

When I left Los Angeles I felt emotionally stalled and distant from the fact that I was leaving my wonderful, exciting, friend and security-filled life. This is not typical for me – I’m pretty damn emotionally aware and typically brimming over with my feelings about things. Probably this was partly a defense mechanism so that I could actually physically leave the life and people I love so much. I know I acted rather cold as I rushed off, halfheartedly kissed everyone goodbye and waved from the car, looking consistently northeast.

I even had the opportunity for love, just weeks before I left. Grand, unbelievably romantic, potentially life-sweeping love. Things I have always dreamt of.

But I walked away from it all, with purpose and clarity in my need to be alone right now: a deep, deep desire and, somehow, physical necessity. I felt in my last months in Los Angeles like a bird in a cage, flapping and crashing against barriers and people. I needed this time and space, as well as all the quietness, all of the days wandering, trying to figure out which restaurant could possibly be the right choice. I am so happy for it, delight and relish in going to bed right when I feel like it, of sitting down anywhere I want and reading.

I don’t know why I need this space so desperately. I don’t feel like I’m on any particular quest for myself or my truth. All I can trust is my gut, and it’s telling me to keep digging my fingers in and enjoying all of this. I’ll keep you updated if I find any epiphanies any time soon.

In Bratislava, Slovakia. Bratislava Castle in the background.
Of course though, I’m not really alone at all, even if I’m getting myself from place to physical place on my own. As a friend said to me before I left, with her great wisdom of things beyond our physical world: this trip is about relationships.

Before I left Minnesota, I emailed all of my contacts in Europe to see where they were living and if they wanted to grab a cup of coffee (also maybe they’d offer a couch, you know?). Greg in Germany drove me from Amberg to Prague, Petar from Serbia gave me advice on which cities to stop in besides Belgrade, and my friend Magda happened to have just moved to Budapest for her PhD when I was arriving. “Come!” She said, “We’ll be tourists and discover Budapest together!”

This is one of the most beautiful examples of how much I love the world. Magda and I worked together in the summer of 2008 at Canyon Village Dining Room in Yellowstone National Park. She is from Romania and came to the US for the summer, I didn’t want to move back to Two Harbors and work at Betty’s Pies for four more months. We got along really well – loved working together. Became friends on Facebook and exchanged a message every year or so, catching up. I kept telling her – I’m coming! I’ll be coming to Europe! People don’t seem to believe me so well when I tell them this, but a word to the wise: If I say I’m coming, I will eventually be coming!

And here I am at the international bus station in Budapest, hurriedly looking at facebook for a recent picture of her.

She sees me first – and admits she just did the same thing at home. We hug as tightly as Jezelle, one of my best friends, and I did when we met in the Prague airport after not seeing each other for just more than a month. We gawk for a minute at being together again, across the world, from my country to her continent, six years later. Then we don’t stop talking until we’re yawning after a few glasses of red wine at 10:30 that night.

Since we last saw each other, Magda has lived all over Europe – Rome, The Netherlands, Nuremberg, Bucharest. She studies labor policy and migrant workers. She’s gotten her Master’s in Public Policy, worked for think tanks, even briefly at the UN and is now just beginning her PhD in Hungary. Her kindness to me is humbling: the many meals she cooks, her offer for me to sleep one more night than planned when I say I think I’ll get a hostel and stay in the city a day more because I’m so inspired here, the fact that she waited to do her Free Walking Tour of Budapest until I got here. We both say it’s like we’ve found a kindred spirit: we’re both enchanted by the storm ripping across the city, swinging and lashing rain around us at the top of St. Stephen’s Cathedral, we both love history and natural beauty, both of us like to go to bed early and rise early.

Magda and I are talking one night about the process of traveling, moving, finding friends in new places and she says one of the most impressive things I’ve ever heard a woman say, “I am not afraid of loneliness.” Not, “I’m not in any rush to find a boyfriend/husband/partner.” Not, “I’m independent and like being on my own right now.”

I am not afraid of loneliness.

Even as I feel pride and joy and awesome sexy female power traveling the world alone, I still reject and fear loneliness. That knot in my gut when I see a couple kissing goodbye longingly at the bus station, the desire to grab someone’s hand or loop my arm through a friend’s as I wander in a new and exciting place, wishing I had someone to talk to at the café other than my notebook or Kindle. These things are real to me here, even with all my desires and needs to be alone right now.

And then when I look out towards my larger life, the one where I live in Minneapolis, I certainly daydream of my own apartment, a little garden out back, some time and space for just me. I anticipate and prepare for the transition, the time when you know no one and feel a little lost and uncertain about the new place you are in. But after a year, even a few months? Certainly having very good friends, as well as a life partner is incredibly important to me. And thinking that there is a possibility this could not come is terrifying.

I’m working hard at being willing to embrace loneliness, to anticipate it and lean into it when it comes, to find the gift that this emotion gives. I prepared myself for a lot of loneliness before this trip as well. I know from experience that not every moment abroad is interesting or transcendent. But opening your heart to loneliness and not fearing it feel different to me.

I don’t have a beautiful conclusion, no greater sense of where this train of thought is leading. I know I’m doing the right thing: choosing to be alone right now. I feel a greater sense of self, freedom and ease than I have in a long time. I’m inspired and coming into myself as an artist. I’m not yet lonely, but I can’t say that I don’t look at the possibility of that experience with an amount of trepidation.

I am proud and impressed and amazed by Magda, lucky to be her friend and to reconnect with her in Budapest after all these years. This seems as good a conclusion as any. 

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

4 Days in Vienna (Was Too Much)

Overall Impressions: I suppose I should not be surprised that in the place where Mozart and Beethoven composed and where the Habsburgs arranged their empire of marriages and political alliances, opulence and perfectionism were the strongest feelings I got in the city of Vienna. And not in an exciting way. If Prague inspired me artistically, Vienna overwhelmed and deflated me. 

Not to mention people were not particularly friendly – I had been told about the wait staff, but I didn’t really feel the love or connection from any Vienese, besides the hostel staff, honestly – which also put a damper on things.

That being said, where else in the world will you be woken up in your hostel at 5 am to someone singing opera on the street below? (Note: I’m still not saying I appreciate being woken up at 5 am, but in retrospect, she was pretty darn good.) And what other city hosts free nightly screenings of operas and ballets for free at their city hall all summer long?

How long: Jezelle and I took the bus from Prague to Vienna midday on Wednesday and left Sunday afternoon. With three and a half full days, we took our time, but even then (and given the price of potential day-trips to places like Salzburg) we felt that there just was not that much to see in the city.

What I did: Our hostel offered free walking tours of the city, and we started there to acquaint ourselves and learn history. Vienna’s Old Town is easily walkable, and the metro system was extensive and user-friendly to get anywhere in town. The Old Town has many museums, especially within the Habsburgs Palace ranging from art and science displays to royal apartments and the crown jewels dating back from the Holy Roman Empire to more modern times. There are famous opera houses (which were closed for the summer, while musicians and singers traveled or took holidays) and stately buildings everywhere, covered in golden Roman statues. This city also has no lack of green space: huge parks and boulevards are all around Old Town and there are lots of places to just sit and relax, which we found lovely.

Museum after museum surround the palace near Old Town
In the Library of Antique Books
The Nashmarkt was a really good way to pass some time for free (if you’re not buying anything). It’s an open air market full of sweets, spices and cafes, along with a variety of tourist shops selling t-shirts sarcastically bemoaning the fact no one can remember Austria is not in fact Australia. We spent a few hours eating some of the best street food I’ve had in my life (with an awesome plethora of options available) in front of City Hall while a jazz band played.

We paid for entrance to three museums: the Library of Antique Books, which was hosting a very interesting display of WW1 memorabilia and propaganda – particularly interesting because Austria (or the Austria-Hungarian Empire) was where the assassination that began the war took place – the Schönbrunn Summer Palace of the Habsburgs (the grounds of which are free to wander) and the museum holding the Crown Jewels as well as hundreds of Catholic relics, including what is reputed to be a nail from the cross itself. Each was very interesting, and delighted Jezelle and I’s history bones.

Jezelle hula hooping at the Habsburg's Summer Palace

On our third day, we traveled to the outskirts of the city, to Grinzing and Kahlenberg, little outposts in the vineyard-covered hills where we got great views of the city, as well as some hiking. We also paid a visit to Mozart and Beethoven’s grave sites in the huge city cemetery.

Where I stayed: The Wombat Hostels are a pretty well-known brand in Vienna as well as other cities in this part of Europe. We stayed at The Lounge, which was prefect for us – low key and close enough to everything. We stopped by The Base for drinks with some people we met and it was a pumping party scene at the bar there. There is one more Wombat hostel that is the largest and most central. Rooms were clean, bathrooms were ensuite, staff was great, drinks at the bar were cheap, towel was included. I would highly recommend, in any of the cities they are located!

Strudel and Melange
What I ate: Wursts and strudel and coffee, oh my! We stopped in a fancy café in Old Town and had mélange (espresso drink) as well as apple strudel. Vienna invented the fast food restaurant with the wurst stands and you can get a hot dog and a beer on lots of street corners for a reasonable price.

To be fair, Viennese cuisine is more than hot dogs: it is well known to be fantastic and we did find some really interesting options all around us when we were willing to spend a few more Euros. We ate at some delicious restaurants to celebrate our first and last night in the city, before we parted ways, Jezelle heading north and I heading south. Mill Restaurant was delicious and fairly priced, though making a reservation would be important, even on a Wednesday night, we learned. 

Total Costs: Coming from Prague, Vienna felt pretty expensive. You can certainly be cheap about what you eat and drink (stay out of the city center, basically) but even so, the price of hostels and museums was higher than many of the other cities I’ve been traveling in during this trip.  

What I wish I known: I wish I had spent less time in Vienna and more in Prague, honestly. Jezelle and I ended up resting and hanging out in the hostel a lot of Vienna (which we both needed, so it was good) but we both agreed that we loved everything about Prague and felt a little meh about Vienna, even after only being in town for a few hours. Two days would have been enough to see all of our highlights.

Each corner of the city is stately and ornate.

Beautiful park spaces, but not much to dig your soul into.