Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Vienna, Austria

"Travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent in the ideas of living."
-Miriam Beard

Vienna was Vienna.  This time, there was no ménage à trois, sleeping on park benches, or pleasant-smelling men.  There was simply me and my backpack, wandering the streets of a new city.

Belvedere Palace.

In an earlier post I alluded to that fact that cities have personalities as distinct as people.  And also that my travels have been a bit like speed dating (thus far, I've "dated" 33 cities in 84 days).  If this was speed dating, then Vienna would be pleasant, good-looking, and articulate.  He would possess an advanced degree, own a flat, and pay his bills on time.  But, I wouldn´t go on a second date.

There just wasn´t any chemistry.  Although there are plenty of positives to be said about Vienna (check out some of these pictures), I didn´t find this city particularly compelling in any way.

 Sphinx outside of Belvedere palace.

Some artwork inside Upper Belvedere.  These men appear a bit constipated.

Sir Mix-A-Lot´s "I Like Big Butts" popped in my head when I saw this statue in Upper Belvedere.

More on Vienna...

Vienna and Berlin are clearly brothers.  Both men speak German.  Both have the S-bahn, the U-bahn, and a plethora of bicyclists.  Both use the Euro and have similar architecture and family history.  But whereas Berlin is the rough, nonconformist brother with tattoos and a penchant for black clothing (translation:  more my type), Vienna is rational, conventional and, IMO, a bit metro sexual.  (I may be completely mischaracterizing Vienna, but it was speed dating, after all!)

The metro sexual side of the city.

In Vienna, I also met Franz.  Franz is not new, I´ve met him 53 times before on this trip (at least!).  Franz speaks English and loves female tourists.  When Franz asks me where I´m from and I say, rather wearily, "US of A" he inevitably reveals that his brother lives in Miami or that his uncle resides in San Fran.  Oftentimes, Franz himself lived in America for a time, working as a dishwasher, a tollbooth collector, or a pizza delivery man.

 The gardens of Belvedere Palace.

More garden views.

And more garden views.

Franz is nice, and since he invariably approaches me on a busy, crowded thoroughfare (as opposed to a side street), I generally converse with him for a bit.  Oftentimes, Franz has interesting travel tidbits to reveal.  For instance, today Franz explained to me that Vienna and Budapest (my follow-on destination) are quite similar; according to Franz, Budapest is just the "dirtier version" of Vienna.  This is because, as Franz reminded me, Vienna and Budapest were once part of a dual monarchy called Austria-Hungary.

 St. Stephan´s church.

After a time, Franz does what he almost always does:  he invites me to visit his store (Franz is more often than not a small business owner) or out to dinner.  This is where I undoubtedly say I´m late meeting a friend for coffee (my strategy today in Vienna) or I feign sickness or fatigue.  

Weiner schnitzel:  the Austrian food-of-choice.

A couple of times, I´ve accepted Franz´s dinner offer.  This has sometimes led to follow-on propositions along the lines of, "Would you care to get a hotel room together?"  Ummmm, no fucking way, Franz!

I hate that I am constantly on the defensive.  Yet, in my opinion suspicion towards Franz equates to safety.

 The cafe culture is alive and well in Vienna...

 I had to partake.

At the same time, Franz has enriched my travel experience considerably.  It was Franz who took me on his motorbike to the top of the Monsoon Palace in Udaiper.  It was Franz who showed me the other side of the Ganges River in Varanasi, India.  It was Franz who let me chill out on his boat in Tel Aviv, Israel.  It was Franz who painted my picture by the Sacre Coeur in Paris, France.

So, this has become my biggest quandary as a sometimes solo female traveler on a RTW trip:  Can Franz be trusted?

It really boils down to this:  Can men be trusted?

Do men always have an ulterior motive when they strike up a conversation with you and/or invite you to their shop or out to dinner?  Are there actually men out there who would be completely content with my company and conversation and nothing more?

I´m NOT trying to villify men.  Many of my best friends are men.  I´ve had the pleasure of dating several very good and trustworthy men.  At the same time, I also lived and worked primarily with men for the past nine years of my military life and I´ve seen how they operate.  While I do believe that men and women can be platonic friends, my experience is that it is far easier for a woman to be platonic friend with a man than it is for a man to be platonic friend with a woman.

Spain has the plaza, France has the jardin, and Germany and Austria have the platz.

 A dish made of potato, weiner schnitzel, dumplings and onion.

Sourkraut and bacon salad.

Would anyone (man or woman) care to weigh in on the female traveler quandary?  Since Franz is everywhere and encounters with Franz are nearly continuous, what would you say differentiates a good-intentioned Franz from a bad-intentioned Franz?  What cues or red flags would you look for in Franz when deciding whether to accompany him to a nearby bistro?  Is it probable that Franz just wants to have an intellectual conversation and practice his English?

Next stop:  Budapest, Hungary.



Monday, 25 April 2011

Prague, Czech Republic

"Our battered suitcases were piled on the sidewalk again; we had longer ways to go.  But no matter, the road is life."
~Jack Kerouac 

My first night in the Czech Republic I slept in a train station and on a park bench.

That's my own fault, really.  I waited until the night before I left Berlin to book a hostel in Prague, forgetting that it was Easter weekend. and confirmed the worst.  There was absolutely no room availability in Prague on Saturday night.  But I'd already made my train reservation and paid the supplementary fee, so I decided to go anyway.

I arrived in Prague mid-afternoon on April 23rd.  My first discovery was that the Czech Republic does not use the Euro.  Their currency is called the Czech Crown (abbreviated kč) and one dollar is approximately 17 kč.

My next discovery was that the architecture here is mind-boggling and the city smells like lilacs in April.

I also learned that the word "Bohemian" comes from the Czech Republic; Bohemia is a historical region that comprises the western two-thirds of the country.  

I walked around Prague for an hour trying to find a hostel, and finally resigned myself to the train station.  

The train station was warm, and I wrote in my journal in order to pass the time.  At around 11 p.m. I curled up in a corner and attempted to sleep, only to be toed by a policeman who said, "There is no sleeping in the train station at night."   I guess they want to deter theft and dissuade bums from making the train station their permanent residence.  After that, I tried to sleep sitting up the best that I could.

At 12:30 a.m., the train station closes it's doors for three hours (there are no scheduled arrivals or departures during this time), so the police corralled a few hundred of us outside.  I headed to a row of park benches along with a mass exodus of backpackers, bums, and criminals.

A look around confirmed that I was one of the only females in the swarm of dirty, dangerous-looking people.  I sat down on a park bench, gripped my backpack to my chest and assumed a defensive position, waiting for the inevitable mugging and/or molestation to commence.

From within the teeming mass of testosterone I heard a female voice, "May I sit next to you?  Please???"

And that's how I met Elzbieta, a violinist from Poland.  For the next hour we huddled together on a park bench in Prague, gossiping over a delightful spread of pretzels and Polish chocolate.

At around 1:30 a.m. it started to get cold.  I put on my hat and gloves, slid into my sleeping sheet and drifted off to sleep on the park bench.  I awoke at around 3:00 a.m.  A bum was standing over Elzbieta, eyeing her rolling suitcase.  I gave the bum a menacing look and shook my gloved fist.  He ambled away.

At 3:30 a.m. the train station reopened and Elzbieta and I went back inside.  I stayed there until 8 a.m. and then walked wearily to my hostel, stopping enroute for black coffee and an Egg McMuffin.

Prague was a memorable experience.  It's a city steeped in history.

Once the capital of the Holy Roman Empire, the "Golden City" played an important role in the Protestant Reformation, the Thirty Years War, and World War I and II.  Not only that, but it's drop dead gorgeous and boasts culinary delights like dumplings, goulash, and Pilsner Urquell.

Next stop:  Vienna, Austria.


Friday, 22 April 2011

Berlin, Germany

I arrived in Berlin on an overnight train.

I rode second class because the supplementary fee was 10 Euro cheaper.  Unfortunately, my cheapskate ways backfired.  Instead of a bed, I was assigned a rigid, non reclinable chair in a small cabin with two German women.  And one French man with great biceps, a square jaw, and copper-colored hair sitting in the rigid, non reclinable seat directly across from me.

While it´s no secret that I love French men... 

I´m NOT fond of the ones who snore.  Loudly.

For hours
and hours
and hours
and hours
and hours
and hours
and hours at a time... 

I kicked the French man in the shins eight times during the middle of the night to try and shut him up.  At long last, somewhere between Paris and Berlin, he awoke with a startled grunt and glared at me from across the cabin.

Eight time´s the charm.  I guess...

It was 2:47 a.m.

Due to a French man´s sleep apnea, I arrived in Berlin on the afternoon of April 20th feeling exhausted, as though I´d been run over by a Mac truck.  Repeatedly.

I checked into my hostel, familiarized myself with the S-bahn and the U-bahn, ate a hamburger, downed a bottle of Berliner Pilsner and collapsed into bed with a great sigh of relief.

And then Superman arrived...

Just as I was falling down the rabbit hole into sweet oblivion, there was a flash of light.  The door of the mixed gender dorm was thrust open and all I could make out was a male silhouette standing in the threshold.

Superman stood in the doorway for a few moments too long, before sauntering across the room and swan diving into the bunk above me.  Yes, swan diving.

I´m not kidding.  He did not use the ladder.

Strange, I thought.  But then something stranger transpired:  a commotion ensued above me.

...There was rolling and rustling and tossing and turning and grunting and groaning and grasping and...

WHAT THE FUCK was going on up there???

After a few minutes, it made sense.  Superman was clearly not alone in the top bunk.  There was a girl up there with Superman and they were most DEFINITELY doing the hanky panky.

As more time passed and the noises kept right on coming, my imagination cranked up a notch.  There wasn´t just one girl up there:  I was listening to a ménage à trois!

I couldn´t decide if that was sick...or cool.

...There was thumping and thrusting and jumping and jolting and bumping and butting and...

This could not possibly be a ménage à trois.  This was a ménage à thirteen!

But as the noises continued long into the night, my patience started to wear thin.  I had to restrain myself from standing up, bitch slapping Superman´s love interest(s) and delivering Superman a roundhouse punch...straight to the family jewels.

...Bump, bump, bang, BAM...

The springs on Superman´s mattress were screaming for a reprieve...

Just as I was about to resort to violence, the noises stopped and Superman stumbled down the ladder and out of the room.  I wasn´t sure what the hell had just happened, but the mixed gender dorm was mercifully silent.

It was 3:51 a.m.

I woke up at 8.00 a.m. in order to catch a Free Tour of Berlin.  Thanks to Superman´s hour-long lovemaking session, I was still exhausted.

I wanted to see what The Man The Myth The Legend looked like.  My vision of Superman was this:  6´3", 190 pounds, muscled, tan...covered in scars, facial hair, and tattoos...

But everyone was still sleeping in the mixed gender dorm and I was too considerate to turn on the lights.

Imagine my surprise when I returned from the shower and saw Superman face-to-face.

Someone had opened the heavy curtain, and Superman was lying in bed with his legs crossed, reading a novel.  Not just any novel.  Superman was reading The Beauty Myth:  How Images of Beauty are Used Against Women.

For anyone not familiar with Naomi Wolf´s "masterpiece," I read it 12 or 13 years ago during a rather dark period of my life.

During this period, I also wore black, dyed my hair weird colors in my parents´ bathtub, practiced atheism and was an angry, bitter, little man-hating feminist.

Superman was not at all the way I´d imagined him during the previous night´s ménage à trois.  Besides his choice in reading material, he had rather girly features, and soft-looking hands.  There was no trace of scars, facial hair, or tattoos. 

...I left on the Free Tour of Berlin and proceeded to be WOWed by the German capital.  There is so much history here.  Some of my favorite things about Berlin are...

Checkpoint Charlie (once a Berlin Wall crossing between East and West Berlin):

Remnants of The Berlin Wall:

Bebelplatz (the square where Hitler conducted his infamous book burning):

In Bebelplatz square there is is an inscription by the German poet Heinrich Heine.  Over 100 years before Hitler´s 1933 book burning, Heine wrote, "Where they burn books, they will ultimately burn people..."

The Berlin Cathedral (aka. Berliner Dom):

The food:


And the beer:

I sat in a cafe along the Spree River with a glass of beer in hand, thinking about my travels.

...and I drank...

I made a revelation:  cities are like people.  

Some cities you love, some you like, some you tolerate, some you hate.  Sometimes you have to give a city a second chance because maybe you just met it on the day it was PMSing, it´s car broke down, or it´s dog died (i.e. it was raining, you met rude people, or you were holed up in bed with food poisoning).

...and I drank...
Each city on Earth has it´s own, distinct personality.  If I had to sum up Berlin´s personality in a couple of words it would probably be:  nonconformist, lots of baggage (e.g. Hitler, World Wars), punkish, arty, and energetic...

...and I drank...

If cities are like people, then on this trip, I´ve wanted to meet everyone.  It´s been a bit like speed dating.  I´ve been averaging one city every 2.5 days.  I like travelling this way, but I haven´t really been really able to delve under the surface of any one city.

...and I drank...

Because even though cities have their own, distinct personalities they are definitely like people in that they have their oddities, their quirks, their eccentricities, and their contradictions...  

I´ve been able to find something I love about every city I´ve visited on this trip, though some cities have tugged on my heart strings (e.g. Tel Aviv, Paris) more than others.

...and I drank...

I really didn´t drink that much.  It was like two beers, but because I´m such a cheap date I started to get beer goggles even before I finished Beer Number Two.  What can I say...  My liver´s weak. 

I headed back to the hostel, hoping that, this time, I might get a restful night´s sleep.  

Next up:  Prague, Czech Republic.