Monday, March 17, 2003

Pedro, Strauss, Scott Hamilton, and Marco Polo

I'm finally writing another newsletter on a rare sunny day in Prague. The temperature is around 9 degrees (Celsius), which is the first time it's been much above freezing for a while. It's obvious that Spring is in the air, and it is very much looked-forward-to.

I just returned from the Sumava (pronounce Shoe-muh-vuh) national park on the border with Germany. Allen, Chandra, Jamey, and myself went down there for the weekend. I'll describe the trip a little later on in the newsletter, but first I'll write about my "Spring" Break to Vienna and Budapest that took place at the beginning of February. I went with Jonny, Elise, and Randy. We hadn't decided where we were going exactly until we went to the Wasteels travel agency to buy our tickets. We knew we were going to Budapest, but we weren't sure if Budapest would be big enough to spend an entire week in without getting bored. We thought it might be a good idea to go to Zagreb, the capital of Serbia, since Jonny's family is from the former Yugoslavia and he speaks Yugo conversationally.

Well, Jonny, Elise and I went to Wasteels to look into train prices to Budapest and Zagreb. It turned out to be too expensive to go all the way down to Serbia because, by train, Zagreb is as far past Budapest as Budapest is from Prague. So, in a split second decision, we had our nice travel assistant look up the prices for going to Budapest with a stopover in Vienna which is on the way. It turned out to be relatively cheap, at least in comparison to Zagreb, so we made an executive decision to buy tickets through Vienna and on to Budapest.

Randy was informed of this later, after having already paid for his ticket, and luckily he had no problems with it. Jonny also has a Yugoslavian friend living in Vienna and so he contacted her to let her know we would be in town so that we could all meet up somewhere. Vienna is only 4 hours by train from Prague, so we took an evening train and arrived there around 10:30 or 11:00 Saturday night.

There are two big train stations in Vienna, as far as I can figure, and we came into the South station, or Sudbahnhoff. Our hostel was near theWest station, or Westbahnhoff. So, the first thing we had to do was figure out how to get across the city to Westbahnhoff. Vienna's public transportation system is very nice, so it was no problem for us to figure out how to buy a 3-day pass and hop on a tram to the Weststation. While we were on the tram, Jonny overheard some middle-aged Yugoslavian women talking behind us, and the rest of us tried to get him to speak with them. He was too shy to do it though.

After we gotoff the tram at the West station, we had some trouble finding the street we were supposed to walk down because this was at a major intersection of tram and car traffic. The Yugoslavian women, who had also deboarded the tram, just stayed there at the tram station to wait for another one. So, we finally convinced Jonny to ask the ladies for directions. They were amazed when he walked up speaking Yugo, because they didn't realize we had been on the tram with them, and they had no idea how he knew they were Yugoslavian.

Anyway, his asking for directions turned into their pulling out their wallets and showing usall pictures of their families, and other various pleasantries. Typical Eastern Europeans... I understood a little bit of what theye said, due to the similarities between Czech and Yugo, but the languages are different enough that most of what they said went over my head. Jonny told them that the rest of us didn't understand anything, which,for the most part, was true.

After a little more chatting, they pointed us in the direction that our hostel was, and we took off down the street, only to see them waving to us from a passing tram 5 minutes later. Had we waited a few more minutes, we could have taken it with them. Oh well.

We got to our hostel, and the first thing that struck me was the level of English that the receptionists had. We could actually strike up a conversation with the receptionist, and he actually made jokes, and they were actually funny. I have never had that happen in Prague. I live in a hotel and drop my key off at the front desk every day, and none of the receptionists there could come close to carrying on a conversation with an English speaker. They know just enough to get by as a receptionist.

All in all, while I was in Austria I never came into contact with anyone who couldn't speak English at a very advanced level. I don't know if the differences between English speaking in Austria and the Czech Republic are due to the school systems in those countries, or if they are due to the base languages of the people of those countries. It's probably a little bit of both factors. Anyway, we paid for our room and went upstairs.

Randy and I had decided earlier that we would both read the Illiad on this trip, and we had both made good progress on the train ride down. But in the meantime, I discovered that I had purchased the dumbed-down colloquial translation of the Illiad. This wouldn't have been so bad, had it been an American colloquial translation, but it was a British colloquial translation, in the style of London-slum English, so I suddenly lost interest in finishing my book. I decided to wait for Randy to finish his, and I would continue it later. So, instead of reading for a little while before going to sleep, I went straight to bed and woke up early the next morning in time for the continental breakfast.

All of us went downstairs and filled up on rolls, cheese, and cornflakes. Then we walked around the area of Vienna where we were staying. It was a shopping district, and everything was closed, due to it being Sunday. We stopped and waited at a Starbucks just up the street from a cafe where we were supposed to meet Jonny's friend Vesna at 1:30. We sat inside there for a while, due to the extreme cold outside. It was -12 or so. I'm not sure what that is in Fahrenheit because, after being here almost 2 years, I've lost my sense for Fahrenheit temperature. I'm sure it will come back to me when I return home, but for now it's all Celsius to me.

We finally met Vesna and went across town by subway to her flat, where she cooked a pasta lunch for us. That was unexpected, but very nice of her. She was an extremely nice person. We stayed at her flat until the evening, and then she took us around St. Stephansplatz, where the main Cathedral of Vienna is. We tried to go up in the tower inside the cathedral, but they were holding mass, so tours were unavailable at that time. We ended up walking down the main shopping street in downtown Vienna where they have large stars laid into the pavement with names of famous composers from Vienna's past. Not all of the composers were from Vienna, or even Austria, but all had spent time in Vienna at one point or another.

After finishing up our walk, we went across town again and met Vesna's sister who was at work at a health club. Then we proceeded back to our hostel, but on the way found an Italian-style ice cream shop. We decided to stop there, and all of us got ice cream. The shop was connected to a cafe of sorts, so we tried to sit down there, but they said it was only for customers of the cafe. That was a little strange, since the ice cream shop itself had no seats. They kicked us out, and we ended up walking down the street eating ice cream at -12 degrees. Oh well, it was exceptionally good ice cream, and we didn't have to worry about it melting.

The next day we went back downtown to St. Stephansplatz to try to go up into the cathedral tower. As soon as we stepped out of the metrostation there though, we were accosted by a smooth-talking cape-wearing Austrian with the name Pedro on his name tag. He was selling tickets for a Johann Strauss concert that was to occur later that evening. We let him give his whole sales pitch and said "Thanks." He was a pretty nice guy, and we were interested in going to a concert, but we weren't sure what else we could find at that point.

We finally got past Pedro and went into the cathedral only to be rejected once again by the Catholic mass. So we walked back out, and nodded to Pedro, who was still outside looking for other passers-by to give his sales pitch to. We then walked around that area some more, but not really knowing anything about the city, found ourselves lost. Not lost in a physical sense, but in the sense that we had no idea what we should do. I tried calling the main ticket office for the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, but got a recording in German, which was of no use to me, and Vesna had called just a few minutes earlier to tell us that she had found some information about a Johann Strauss concert that was to occur later that night.

At that point, Pedro's tickets were looking pretty appealing to us. So, we went back to where he was stationed and handed over our money to him in exchange for four tickets to the Johann Strauss concert. Then we asked him what else we should do in the meantime. He gave us some great suggestions, the first of which being to take the number 1 or number 2 tram, both of which travel in a circle through the city and stop at all of the important sites in Vienna.

That's what we did and we saw the National Library, the Parliament building, and the Rathaus, which is the Town Hall. Outside of this town hall, there was a large skating rink set up for some reason. It was an amazing place to have a skating rink, because the Rathaus is a building which can only be described as majestic. Austria is a city full of stately, majestic buildings.

Anyway, we decided to come back at night if we got a chance, because there was an elaborate lighting system set up to light the Rathaus, and a massive disco ball was hanging above the rink for added atmospheric effect.

From there we finished our trip around the city, and decided to go see Mozart's grave which is in the small St. Marx cemetary somewhere on the outskirts of Vienna. Most people think his grave is in Salzburg, but in fact that is only a large memorial to him and his actual body is buried somewhere, though nobody knows exactly where, in Vienna.

From there, we went to eat and then caught our concert which was good, even though I'm not a huge fan of Viennese Waltzes. They played all of Strauss's most popular waltzes which is what the tourists want to hear, and so it was entertaining. I had actually performed in concerts with Southern's orchestra about a third of the waltzes they played.

After the concert we thought about whether we wanted to go back to the hostel or go ice skating. Finally we decided to go skating since we wouldn't have another chance to do so, or at least not on a rink in front of the Rathaus in Vienna. We hopped on a tram, went over to the skating place, bought tickets for the rink, rented skates, and went out on the ice. The ice was very rough and the skates were dull, but the atmosphere was worth it.

The most intriguing part of the evening was a middle-aged Scott Hamilton wannabe who kept gliding around the ice with his arms out at his sides like an Olympic hopeful. I kept waiting for him to bust out with a triple salchow, but alas, he didn't have it in him. I'm also sad to report that I suffered my first skating fall there on the ice in front of the Vienna Town Hall. There went my haughty spirit and my perfect skating record...

The next day our group went out to a former palace of the Hapsburgs, of Hapsburg Empire (or Austro-Hungarian Empire if that's what you're familiar with) fame. This place was mind-boggling. We took a tour of 40 rooms on one floor of this 1441 room palace. Each room was decorated with elaborate furniture, paintings, and wall-hangings. I can't imagine the value of the antiques and other decorations there, but I'm sure it's in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

The palace is called Schonbrunn and was the summer home of the Hapsburgs until November 11, 1918 when their Empire was dissolved after the 1st world war. Visit it if you ever go to Vienna. After gawking our way through Schonbrunn, we went back downtown to the Cathedral to try our luck, for a third time, at climbing the tower. There was no mass in session this time, but we discovered that the cathedral also had catacombs, and so we decided to tour those instead.

The tour was given in German, so we didn't understand most of it. The guide would then proceed to explain everything for all of the English speakers in the group, but he spoke so quickly, and with such a terrible accent, that it was all I could do to understand what he was saying. The most interesting part of the tour, though, was several rooms which were full of bones. There was one room with a manhole-sized hole in the middle of the floor and a ladder sticking outof the hole. About 1000 people had been dumped down this hole during the time that the Plague swept Europe. They are still there, to this day, and you can gaze at their intertwined skeletons to your heart's content if you visit Vienna.

Anyway, that evening we met Vesna again right before we were to get on our train for Budapest. She had bought all of us a lot of Austrian chocolate and sandwiches for our trip. Again, we weren't expecting any of that, but she was very gracious.

Budapest is only 4 more hours east of Vienna, so we took another evening train and arrived there shortly. Upon arriving in Budapest, I came down with my first true case of culture shock. When I first came to Prague, it took a little getting used to, but there was no huge shock. Arriving in Budapest was like coming to Prague for the first time and multiplying it by 10. Budapest is in Hungary, for those who aren't well-versed in geography. They speak Magyar there, which is similar to nothing except Finnish. My broken Czech was completely useless, so I was limited to English again, which I found to be disconcerting. In Austria, it wasn't so bad because nearly everybody spoke English, but that was not the case in Budapest.

We got off the train, and were surrounded by people offering us a place to stay or offering to change our money for us. These people all spoke English, which was actually annoying because we already had a place to stay and just needed to get on the subway and go there. So, finally I was able to get to an ATM machine and withdraw 10,000 Hungarian forints. 200 forints is a dollar; you do the math.

We bought subway tickets, and luckily caught the last metro of the evening to the area where we knew our hostel to be. We found our hostel after a couple of trips around the block where it was marked on our map. It was well-marked on the map, but not so well-marked in real life. We had reserved a room for 4 people online. When we got there, the guy at the desk tried to put us in a dorm room for 6 people with two Chilean guys. We would have been fine with that, but we had reserved aroom for 4, and he told us after we had arrived that we could still have it, but that if he showed it to us we wouldn't want it.

Well, I pushed him to show us the room because I could tell he was trying to pull something over on us. The owner of the hostel (it was a small place) had, for some reason, filled the room with books from the downstairs used English book shop. In addition to these books, he had also hung his laundry up in the room. So it wasn't as though they were strapped for the space; they just didn't want to get their act together and clean out the room for us. Well, we pushed the guy to clean it out, and even helped him pack up these stacks of books into boxes so that we could have our room. They had some incredible books in those stacks, and I would have bought probably 10 of them if I had the opportunity, but alas, they had already been sold to schools in the area.

Anyway, we finally got to bed and the next morning got up and went out on the town. The night before, we had discovered a pamphlet on a wild caving tour that takes place on certain days there in Budapest. The city has many hot springs, and therefore many public bathhouses, but as a result of the springs, there are also many caves in the area. So, to sign up for this cave tour, we had to go to another nearby hostel. The nice lady at the desk at this second hostel tried to call the leader of this caving expedition to see if there would be a trip leaving that day.

Unfortunately she couldn't reach her while we were there. The trips always left from a bus stop across town, and we had to pay there at the hostel if we wanted to go. Well, we did want to go, so we paid and got a map to the bus stop where we were supposed to meet. We were assured that we would definitely be met by someone from the caving agency. So then we stepped back outside, took out our lonely planet guide and decided what to do next. First we went to the nearest metro station and bought a day pass for the public transportation system. Then we took the metro to the parliament building.

Look up "Budapest Parliament" on and you can see pictures of this building. I haven't the time, nor the desire, to describe this building to you, although it's amazing, so look it up. There at the parliament building we played in a small field of snow for a while and took several pictures. This was the first time this year any of us had been in any snow to speak of (about 5 or 6 inches). Vienna was snowless, too.

Then we got on a tram to take us down by the river to a bridge over the Danube. We walked along the riverside towards the bridge and discovered a stairway leading down underneath the bridge. We dodged ice and other frozen things sitting on the stairs, and went down to take a closer look at the underside of the bridge. After our curiousity had been satisfied, we went back up the stairs and crossed over the bridge to climb the hill with the palace on it.

Prague and Budapest are very much alike in that they both have castles on hills across the river from the main city. However, Prague is much more beautiful, but I'm biased. We climbed the hill, and looked out over Budapest from the top. Wow, nice view... Then we took a bus down the hill and then a tram to the place we were supposed to meet for our caving trip. We were a little early, so the others went off to look at some shops and buy some film, and I went to the meeting place.

I waited for a while. Then the other guys came, and we all waited for a while. And then we waited a while longer. No one showed up. We went straight back to that hostel where we had forked over 3000 or so Hungarian Forints and demanded to know what the deal was. The girl behind the counter apologized profusely and said she had made a mistake, and that the tour would be going the next day. So our group discussed for a few moments whether or not we could go the next day, because it was our last day of vacation, and we would be leaving on a train that night. We decided that we could go, because our train, according to Jonny, wasn't leaving until 11:30 that evening. It would give us plenty of time to go caving and make it back to the station for our overnight train to Prague.

So we left our money there and went out on the town again. One of our students from the McNeilus school is actually half Hungarian and he was also in Budapest for the week, so we called him up and arranged to meet him somewhere. He took us to a few other sights around the city. Then we left him and took a night walk down by the river. I split off from the rest of the group in order to take some pictures from one of the bridges.

We communicated by way of Randy and Jonny's two-way radios,which were both useful and amusing. They all walked around for a while after that, but I, being cold in spite of my perpetually-worn snowpants, went back to the hostel.

The next day we got up and I actually checked the tickets to see what time our train was leaving. Luckily I found that our scheduled departure time was 7:30, and not 11:30. Jonny swears that he saw 11:30 somewhere. I don't believe him. Anyway, we didn't have time to go caving anymore. So we went back, yet again, to the Marco Polo hostel. We got our money back, and decided to go spend it on something else. I took a tour of the parliament building and got to see the largest toothpick structure in the world. It was a model of the parliament building and is in the Guiness book of world records. It was impressive, but not as impressive as the actual building. The other guys went to a nearby outdoor market and bought some things. Then we met up again at a metro station and went to a vegetarian restaurant. After that, we wandered around some more until it was time to go get our stuff from the hostel.

We went back there and met some other Americans who would also be taking the train to Prague with us that night. We chatted with them for a little while and then departed for the train station. I went into the station with one two-way radio, and Randy, Jonny, and Elise went into a McDonald's across the street in order to pick up some food for the train. When I entered the station,I found out that our train was delayed for an hour. I communicated this to the rest of our group, and the other Americans from the hostel and I went over to McDonald's as well.

We stayed there in the warmth for a while, and when the hour was almost over we went back to the station to find that our train was delayed for another 30 minutes. That makes 90 minutes total. Another 30 minutes or so passed while we sat in the communist style train waiting room. Then another delay time was posted. This time it was 120 minutes. That means the train wasn't going to depart until at least 9:30. We went to the tourist information desk, and asked what the holdup was. The lady, nice enough as she was, told us the unfortunate news that an electrical cable had broken on the train, it had been fixed, and the train would be pulling into the station around 10:00.

This would have given us plenty of time to go caving. It's just too bad we didn't plan on a two and a half hour train delay. Aside from the delay, we made it back in one piece after a good trip.

My Sumava trip was also good, although not as long or adventure packed. I did manage to accidentally wander past a border guard into Germany, which was amusing. Not realizing it, we got off the train one station past where we were supposed to get off, which is a situation I'm familiar with. This station happened to be on the border with Germany. One half of the platform was in the Czech Republic, and one half was in Germany.

Well we were walking along the platform, and we came to a sign that said "Deutchland." I thought to myself, "That's odd, we're in the Czech Republic." Well, not anymore after we passed that sign. As we passed it, a man in a window said, "Hello." to which I replied,"Hello." and kept walking. I got about 10 feet into Germany and he said, "Hey, passport control!" At which point I realized I really was in Germany and needed to turn around. We still didn't know we were at the wrong station at that point, because our beloved Petra Kudrnova had told me that this was the station I should get off at. So, we left the train station and walked around a relatively deserted area for a while to find that our hotel was nowhere to be found.

We went back to the train station to find that the waiting room was closed for the night, along with any sort of information desk worker. We went back to borderpatrol man and Jamey made a valiant attempt in extremely broken German to ask him when the next train going in the opposite direction left. Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately, for her, he was Czech and had relatively little comprehension of what she was trying to say, so I asked him in Czech and he told me that it left in about 30 minutes and was the last train of the night. Then I asked him if he knew where our hotel was. I gave him the name and he said he did know it and started laughing because he finally understood why we were there. He drew a map for me, and said it was about 200 meters to the left of the previous train station. I thanked him, and we proceeded to make our way back to our hotel.

Then another adventure ensued at the hotel because absolutely none of the staff spoke English at all, so our entire check-in was in Czech (I honestly did not intend for that to be a pun, so don't think less of me for it). And the nice lady at the desk kept trying to speak German to me, so I had to keep telling her it was better if she just stayed in her native Czech tongue because I can actually understand that. It took a while, but they finally got us situated in our rooms, and we went to bed. The next day we tried to hike to a nearby lake, but couldn't find it after a couple hours of hiking, so we turned around and went back to the hotel. We had a nice walk on snow-covered mountain trails through forests of fir trees, though, so it wasn't a complete loss. I did look at a topo map back at the hotel and found that if we had continued for about 10 more minutes we would have reached our lake. Maybe next time.


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