Proper Travel, Part 2

July 20, 2018 § 5 Comments

Okay, you know when I said I’d post some tips on how not to be a tourist? The bad news is that the only way not to be a tourist is to be an immigrant. The good news is that being a tourist is like being a #fake #bikeracer. With the right amount of preparation, delusion, and funny clothing, it can actually be fun.

Language tourism

This is the first time I’ve ever gone somewhere and enrolled in a language course as my primary travel activity. In this case I signed up for a 2-week intensive course at the Goethe Insitut, Germany’s global propaganda arm that spreads Germanic culture through language instruction and without panzer divisions.

The classes have various levels, A1 is the lowest and C2 is the highest. Before you leave home they ask you to take an online placement test which covers reading, writing, listening, and speaking skills. It is a really hard exam; I only got 69% of the questions right, but that was still good enough to place me in the advanced C1 class. After day one it became clear that I belonged in a lower class, as my classmates are all phenomenal.

I’ll post a review of the Goethe Institut’s classes later, but so far they have been great. The classes are small, our teacher is cheerful and good, and the students have this in common: They want to be there. Think about language classes you’ve taken in the past where there were two students who were “into it” and everyone else was not, with NOT all in caps.

Language tourism has a lot of benefits. The only real down side is that you get locked into a schedule; more about that later. The advantages? Read on. (I can’t believe I just wrote “read on.”)

Reading on

Since tourism revolves around food, drink, and motion, these three problems must be re-solved multiple times every day, and doing so is expensive. This is why tourists find a place they like and tend to go there multiple times. Restaurants are expensive and since food is so important, who wants to pay top dollar for a shitty meal when you can pay top dollar for a mediocre one?

The same thing goes for getting out and doing things. There’s a reason that a city like Vienna or Bratislava has all of its tourism activities clustered in one small area, and the reason is cost and perceived convenience. Tourists are horribly lazy, insecure, cheap, and suspicious, so keeping them corralled where they can be bled dry of their teuros makes sense.

Signing up for a language course has an obvious up-front cost, but once you pay for the class, you automatically resolve most of the rest of the problems that confound tourists. Since the classes run from the same time, you don’t have to wonder every day where you’re going to grab breakfast and lunch: You’ll grab it every single day from the cheapest place that is close to the school. Moreover, the teachers and staff will tell you where to go and it will never be an overpriced shit shack filled with Usonians.

In my case, breakfast has daily involved great supermarket bread with butter and jam, and a stiff cup of home-brewed coffee. Total cost? Maybe one teuro, less than the cost of a cup of coffee at a cafe.

Another great thing about having a cheap breakfast routine is that it takes the emphasis off of food. I’m not opposed to food and in fact consume it on a more or less daily basis, but the fanatical obsession with what you eat while touring is weird. You should eat great all the time at home such that shitty food on the road is meaningless, but actually most people eat shit at home and therefore have unrealistic expectations about culinary experiences abroad.

The language program, with its set time and location, will quickly get you onto a schedule of eating what’s cheap and good and filling, and leaving the Yelp critiques for a different life.

Perpetual motion

Tourism is by definition perpetual motion, even if it only be shuffling from the bar to the beach to the hotel room and REPEAT.

My language program solved that, too, and in the most awesome of ways. Language programs know that you are there to study the language and to kill time, and they know that you want to kill the time in the target language. Voila, you have the pre-fab cultural itinerary. Mine is so awesome as to defy description, so I will simply post a photo of it here. Recall that this course costs 800 teuros, which seems like a lot until you look at all of the tourism activities that it includes. Were you to do this on your own, a) you couldn’t and b) it would cost way more and c) you’d run out of time trying to organize even a fraction of it.

IMG_7052

The activities are a menu; unlike classwork you can attend or not as you have the time or interest. Since they’re included in the cost of the course, with a couple of exceptions, you don’t feel like you have to go unless it’s convenient.

I’ve gone to most of the morning tours since my class doesn’t start until 2:00 PM. It’s really cool to walk around Vienna with experts and learn about the city in German. This has to be one of the best things about language tourism. You study something that you like, and then you get to apply it immediately. I think you also remember things better when you have to concentrate fully on trying to understand what’s being said.

Yesterday, for example, we went to the Vienna Museum of WTF, my name for it, not theirs, and heard a fascinating lecture about WTF art and its history in the city. It’s not every day that you get to see a painting of a man with a vulva hanging next to a photo montage of a woman with a knitted gag being spanked in a park next to an installation of a giant orange tree wedged in between videos of people shaving their armpits.

Back to school

But by far and away the best part of being in school is being in school. If you are an old, brokedown, worn out shoe like me, there is something strangely comforting about being in a language class with people who are thirty years younger or more, and who continually reaffirm that a) I am a worn out shoe, and b) youth is wasted on the young.

I don’t care what anyone says, there is something truly awesome about slumming around Vienna with a little shoulder bag stuffed with a textbook, pen, notebook, and city map, feeling like a real student even though, at least in my case, it’s #fakestudent #allthetime.

My class has eleven students: Mathilda from Poland, Sara from Barcelona, Antoine from Switzerland, Mika from Finland, Anne from Strasbourg, Leone from Italy, Paula from Italy, Paula from Scotland, Vera from Switzerland, and Vasily from Greece. Vasily and Antoine are old dudes like me, although not as old, and everyone else is either a lot younger or way the fuck younger.

It’s astonishing to see how quickly people learn and how slowly I pick up even the most basic things. It’s also challenging in the most fundamental of ways in that everyone is there to improve, everyone constantly evaluates everyone else, and there is an iron standard of “mastering German” that none of us will reach, at least not in two weeks’ time, or in my case, ever.

Like any class, there are coalitions and synchronicities, but everyone gets along, everyone is polite, and everyone is there with a purpose. Compare that to your last trip … anywhere.

In that regard, language tourism is incredibly intense and in some basic sense, it is hard. At the end of the day my brain is completely drained, and it’s only the next morning that I feel like I made some incremental progress. A residue of learning and a sharpened appetite to return aren’t bad measures for travel.

Better, at any rate, than a hangover.

END

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10-12 mph

July 20, 2018 § 6 Comments

Finally recovered from my murderous rendezvous with the Croatian Hammer, I rolled out the door at 6:40, planning to do a quick two-hour spin.

The weather was as magnificent as it has been since we got to Vienna, and somehow I simply couldn’t make myself put on my helmet. I keep telling myself that it’s because slow speeds riding solo or with one other person are safe, and therefore no helmet is required, but the fact is that riding without a head cage transports me back to the beginning of my #fake #cycling career, when no helmet was as natural then as wearing one is natural now.

The fact is simple. Riding a bike with no helmet, and being fortunate at age 54 to still have hair for the wind to blow through, is life’s second most extraordinary unprotected feeling.

This morning was a recon morning, a quick ride to learn a bit more of the streets near my apartment, find the bike shop so I could bring my bike back to get the bars wrapped (the tape had come undone), find my way to the Arena bakery, find my way to the Donau Canal bike path, confirm how long it takes to reach the Lion’s Bridge, starting point of the Sat/Sun beatdown ride, and also do a quick tour of the city and refamiliarize myself with streets I’d forgotten.

I did all this, as much as possible, using only bike paths.

The bike paths in Vienna are often, if not always connected, and all you have to do is follow the blue markers painted on the street. It seems like the speed they were designed for is about 10-12 mph. More than that and you will hit shit or miss turns or hit shit. Especially, you will hit shit. This doesn’t stop cyclists from racing along them at Mad Max speeds of 15-20, but it stopped me.

As I crossed the bridge on my way to recon the bike shop, an angry lady walking her dogs shouted at me. “This is not for bikes!’

She was livid. And the dogs didn’t look happy, either.

Sensing a prime moment to practice German with an angry native, I stopped.

“Sorry?”

“You are on the wrong side of the bridge, as you know!”

“I’m sorry, I’m not from here. I didn’t know.”

“I don’t care where you are from! There is a giant ‘pedestrians only’ sign at the entrance!”

“There is?” I was genuinely concerned and speaking humbly and with interest, and her anger totally evaporated, but she couldn’t suddenly be nice without looking like a total psycho, so she kept yelling, only #fake #angrily.

“Of course there is! You must pay attention! You will hurt someone and yourself! Where’s your helmet?”

“At home. It is such a beautiful day. I’m sorry I took the wrong path. I won’t do it again.”

She almost smiled, but yelled a bit more. “Well, that’s the least you can do!”

“And thank you for telling me.”

She completely caved. “Of course,” she said gently.

“Have a wonderful day!” I said as I pedaled off.

“You as well!”

And she gave me a little wave.

END

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Proper travel, Part 1

July 18, 2018 § 1 Comment

Tourism consists almost exclusively of eating and drinking to excess as you go from place to place. Travel, on the other hand, is completely different. After many years spent going from place to place, I’ve come up with some simple ways to determine whether or not you are tourisming or traveling. This is important because NO ONE WANTS TO BE A TOURIST.

Being a tourist is like being a Fred, only a billion times worse because there is nothing wrong with being a Fred.

Here’s how you know you are tourisming. If you find yourself nodding more than once every ten items or so, please check back tomorrow to find out how you can become a traveler.

  1. Food is a big deal.
  2. You critique what you eat.
  3. You look up restaurants before you ever even leave your home country.
  4. A lousy meal ruins your day/night/week/trip/marriage/life.
  5. You get outraged at cigarette smoke, which ruins your day/night/week/trip/marriage/life.
  6. When you tell friends back home about your trip, you talk a lot about where and what you ate.
  7. You rarely if ever eat street food.
  8. You’ve never gotten food poisoning from eating obviously dicey food.
  9. You’ve been to Europe and never had Turkish fast food.
  10. You rarely shop for food at the supermarket.
  11. You don’t know how the coin-deposit system works for European grocery shopping carts.
  12. You rarely cook your own food.
  13. You are a coffee snob.
  14. A bad cup of coffee is worse than a stroke.
  15. You refuse to buy shitty coffee from vending machines.
  16. “I’m too tired to eat,” are words that you have never uttered.
  17. Drink is a big deal.
  18. You drink a lot.
  19. You drink at lunch and dinner.
  20. You do wine tours.
  21. You “study” a country’s wine “culture.”
  22. You notate the wines/beers/whiskeys you drank.
  23. You occasionally barf from over consumption.
  24. “A glass of wine with dinner” means two bottles.
  25. You are fascinated by the local sake/shochu/beer/whiskey/vodka production facility.
  26. Most of the people you meet when you travel are at restaurants at bars.
  27. You think “ex-pats” are somehow different from immigrants.
  28. Moving from place to place is a big deal.
  29. You refuse to fly coach.
  30. You fly coach but only with great embarrassment.
  31. You lie to your friends and tell them you flew business.
  32. You have ever thought more than one second about whether or not the airline food was “good.”
  33. You think for more than five seconds before saying chicken or meat.
  34. You complain about jet lag.
  35. You complain about airports.
  36. You shop in airports.
  37. You critique food in airports.
  38. You think one airline is better/safer/cleaner/newer than another.
  39. You have never hung out in the galley with the flight attendants.
  40. You have never brought your own food on board and shared it.
  41. You’ve never gotten around a strange city by bike.
  42. You went on a bike tour and were picky about the make/model/fit/components.
  43. You have never rented a Citi Bike or bike share bike.
  44. You would never rent a scooter.
  45. You’ve never been mistaken for a local.
  46. You have never taken the local bus.
  47. You’ve never been mistaken for a street person, beggar, or misplaced person.
  48. No one has ever asked you for directions in the local language which isn’t English.
  49. You have taken a cruise ship anywhere, not as an employee.
  50. You have ever said, thought, or spoken at length with someone who has said, “We enjoyed our cruise.”
  51. You prefer to rent a car.
  52. Private train cabins or reserved seating are your last choice travel option.
  53. You’ve never had an unreserved bus seat for a trip that takes more than an hour or that crosses a national border.
  54. You don’t know how to ride, pay for, or cheat to ride a tram/subway/local bus.
  55. Your default mode when lost, confused, angry, or looking for an ATM is “Do you speak English?”
  56. Lodging is a huge deal.
  57. You can’t stand dirty sheets.
  58. You can’t stand dirty toilets.
  59. You don’t stay anywhere you can’t get or use points.
  60. You have ever booked a room using points.
  61. You have never shared a gang dorm room with strangers.
  62. You have never shared a bed with a stranger (that didn’t involve money changing hands).
  63. You have never taken a gang shower.
  64. All of your lodging comes with a free breakfast.
  65. The tip you leave the cleaning lady is more than her monthly salary.
  66. You’ve never known the name of a person who cleans your room.
  67. You leave reviews on Yelp.
  68. You read reviews on Yelp.
  69. You are a Yelp star reviewer.
  70. You trust TripAdvisor.
  71. You’ve never taken a trip where none of the lodging is booked more than a day in advance.
  72. You’ve never had to sleep outside.
  73. You’ve never had to fix a plumbing problem or retrieve something dropped down a drain.
  74. You have never made a life-long friend as a result of a trip.
  75. You’ve never invited a complete stranger to stay with you if they’re ever in your home country.
  76. You’ve never accepted an invitation from a complete stranger to go to or stay at their house.
  77. You’ve never watched someone else’s bags.
  78. More than 2% of any post-trip conversation with any sentient creature has revolved around the food, the drink, or the transportation.

END

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The Croatian Hammer

July 17, 2018 § 8 Comments

In more than seven years I’ve never skipped three days of blogging due to exhaustion. BWR? I blogged it the following day, every time. FTR? Aw, hell yes. Big Day, with 240 miles round-trip to Santa Barbara plus as much of Gibraltar as I could stomach? Yep.

But these last three days finally got the best of me, culminating with a little 108-mile pedal from Vienna to Slovakia, up into the mountains, and back. The distance was doable. The route was doable. But the wind and the Croatian Hammer were not.

Damir Fister is my biking friend here in Vienna. He arranged my rental bike, hand-delivered it, and has ridden with me every day since we got here. It is always hard to compare cyclists, since everyone has their own strengths, characteristics, and weaknesses, but suffice it to say he is easily one of the best two or three I’ve ever had the honor to ride with.

Let me tell you something about Damir. He is hard. You know how when people talk about “hard man” this and “hard man” that? Damir is next level. Fifty-two years old, he’s been riding all his life, knows every trick in the book, and has that chief characteristic of every badass everywhere: No one will ride with him just two-up, or at least not more than once. You go out with this guy, it is going to hurt.

Operation obliteration

The first day he dropped off my bike and said, “Do you want to ride?”

I’d been in Vienna for two hours and hadn’t even moved into our apartment. “Sure,” I said.

We got going and he asked, “How far today? 120?”

“No, dude. I’m pretty tired.”

“100?”

“Can we do 80?”

“Okay,” he said.

Damir rides at about 100-110 cadence, and after the ride I was shellacked, but I chalked it up to jet lag, days on the road, not being on my bike since Tuesday, rental frame, etc. We finished with 90km. He barely looked like he had ridden.

“Tomorrow?” he asked.

“Yes, but I am pretty busy so can we just do two hours?”

“Yes, of course,” he said.

The next day we did two hours and I was even more tired than I had been the day before. I couldn’t figure it out, and then I could: It was the fucking wind. When we left Bratislava for Vienna by bus I noticed that the freeway was essentially a nonstop wind farm. Hundreds of windmills everywhere, and having lived in the Great Plains I knew that they do wind studies for several years before planting a wind farm. Those turbines go where there is all wind all the time, and in these windiest of places, the wind on the farm sites is windiest of all.

In short, it is windy.

We were finishing the ride and Damir asked, “Why were you in Slovakia?”

“It seemed like an interesting place to visit,” I said.

“You want to go back?”

“Sure. When?”

“Tomorrow.”

“How far is it”

“180km.”

“I don’t think I can. My German class starts at 2:00.”

“I will have you home by one.”

It seemed like a great idea with overtones of horrible, a hint of nasty, and earthen notes of flat fucking miserable. Local tour with a local who knew the roads. Plus, Damir also spoke Slovak so we’d never get lost. “Okay,” I said.

“You will like this ride. Sometimes it is a little windy. I often ask my friends to do it with me, but … ”

“But what?”

“Bah,” he said. “Only whiners.”

Color me whiner

We left at 5:15. Damir didn’t believe that I was going to be ready, so he called me at 4:45. “Are you really coming?”

“Yes. Just finishing my coffee.”

“Okay, you crazy Californian. I’ll be there shortly.”

As soon as we got out of town we hit the crosswind, but it was a little to the rear and not so bad. The wind turbines were barely moving, and many not at all. After an hour Damir said, “Seth, not too hard. We have a long day ahead. Save it for the return. We may have a big tailwind, but we may have a small headwind.”

I wondered what he meant by “small.” Those turbine blades didn’t look like they were built for “small.”

I backed off and dropped onto Damir’s wheel. I would stay there for another seven hours.

After a while we came to a small river, more like a fat brook. On the far side was a ferry that only held about ten cars; the ferry was powered by a 4-hp outboard motor. A surly Slovak was at the helm. “What’s this?” I asked.

“Border crossing,” said Damir.

I greeted the ferryman in Slovak but he only snarled. The Slovaks hate the Austrians. On the other side we entered another world. The roads went from Austrian Manicure to Slovak Shit. The houses and buildings were dilapidated; it was like crossing the tracks in a small Texas town.

But the good side was that there were no cars. We had the entire road to ourselves, and it was beautiful. Without cars, factories, or industry, the air was so clean, it actually had a fresh and sweet taste as you breathed it in. I sat on Damir’s wheel, endlessly.

“There,” he pointed off into the distance. “We are going there.”

I looked. “There” was a small range of mountains.

See ya and beer

My water bottle was running low. “Hey Damir,” I said. “Can we stop and get water?”

He shook his head as he handed me his bottle. “We cannot stop yet.”

“Why?”

“We only stop when all the bottles are empty and all the pockets are bare.”

I shuddered. The road had been gently going up for miles, but Damir’s pace never slackened. I could feel my heart pounding against my ribcage simply sitting in his small slipstream. He weighs about 145 pounds and has nothing on his frame except muscles that help the bike move forward. You know how demoralizing it is to sit for hours on a wheel, watching the pistons go up and down, never changing cadence, with only the rarest change in gears?

No stop lights, no intersections, no pausing … and of course no fashion cyclists, no people out on $19k bikes promoting the “brand” on “the Gram.” No fucking nothing but pavement and pain.

After a long while we hit the base of the climb. I exploded the moment the road kicked up. Damir hesitated for a moment. “Go on,” I said. “I’m done. See you at the top.”

He nodded and sped off.

Several miles up the endless 15% grade I got to the top. There was nothing to blame it on except weakness. Thankfully there was a cafe at the top, just opening up for the day, but I was fearful because even though my bottle was empty, my pockets weren’t bare.

“Water?” I said hopefully.

“Sure,” he said. “And beer.”

I filled my bottle and tore into my baggie, which had a giant slab of Austrian rye sourdough and a stick of cheese. I washed it down while Damir chugged a beer and nibbled on some air.

“Shall we descend the other side and then climb back up and go home? Or turn around here?”

“Dude,” I said. “I am completely fucking done.”

“Okay, then we will not go down the other side. It is very long and steep.”

I wondered what he thought of the wall we’d just climbed. Obviously not long and not steep.

Wind legs

The rest and food did me good, and I resisted the urge to take a pull. Damir sat on the front and churned into the wind, and when I say wind, I mean unbelievable fucking maelstrom of churning air blowing a horrific crosswind from the depths of hell.

Finding the draft was an art in and of itself because it constantly changed with the undulations and turns of the road. Most of the time the best draft was the deadliest spot; my bars a couple of inches from his hip, putting my wheel dangerously close to his pedal. With the blustering and movement caused by the wind, it was a constant game of “how close can I get without putting his pedal in my front wheel,” scary as shit but worth the risk because the wind was so awful.

He never flicked me through or suggested I pull; he just churned on. No wonder no one wanted to ride up into the Slovak mountains with him. A Damir Day was like a lifetime sentence of hard labor and no food.

We came into a small town and realized we were lost. Damir stopped to ask directions. Simply sitting on his wheel I had been riding at threshold for an hour. We couldn’t have been going more than ten miles per hour. I was panting.

We remounted and got lost some more. Each person he asked gave him different directions until we wound up on an isolated farm road. “Isolated” in Slovakia means no cars have been on the road for a month. We got a respite from the wind and actually had a tailwind for about thirty minutes, the only time the entire day I could hear myself think.

“Too bad about the tailwind,” Damir said.

“Why?”

“Because I think we are going back to the mountains.”

I wanted to cry but somehow didn’t. Miraculously through an amazing sixth sense of direction, Damir got us back to the ferry landing. I didn’t know whether to be happy about seeing Austria again, or broken because I had been watching the wind turbines and they were spinning like a kid’s pinwheel stuck out of a car window at 60.

Home in pieces

The next two hours proved Einstein’s theory of relativity. Time is indeed relative. When you are gazing at a pretty woman, an hour goes by in seconds. When you are stuck on the hip of the Croatian Hammer, grinding into the crosswind from hell, each minute becomes twelve hours.

I finally couldn’t hold his hip any longer, and he rode away. He dropped back, cut his speed down to about 8 mph, and I struggled for another hour or so until we stopped at a gas station, out of water.

I gobbled what was left of my almonds and dates, drank a liter of water, and resumed the torture. Damir dropped me off at my apartment, wrung out, wasted, sopping in sweat and stained with salt. He looked tired but only as tired as if he had, say, walked briskly up ten flights of stairs. I could barely stand.

“Thanks, Damir,” I said.

“Nice job today,” he said. “You rode well.”

I gazed at him for an extra second to see if he was joking, as I hadn’t taken a pull for seven straight hours.

He wasn’t.

END

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Adieu, Slovakia

July 15, 2018 § Leave a comment

I’m writing this from my bed in Vienna. It’s just before 5:00 AM and I’m completely shot, racked with endless jetlag and a vicious bike path beating at the hands of my Croatian buddy Damir. He had made arrangements to get me a rental bike and rode it over to our apartment in the 20th District. Of course, he rode it along with his own bike, which was kind of a feat, riding one bike through city traffic while guiding the other one alongside

“Go for a ride now?” he said.

“Sure,” I said. I changed, fiddled with the saddle, and off we went. A nice one-hour spin would be a great way to finally start getting ahead of the jetlag that I couldn’t shake.

“How far today? 120 km? 150?”

I gulped. “Uh, how about 80?” I countered, which was a solid 40 km farther than I wanted to go. My legs felt leaden, the frame was way too big, and we still hadn’t bought groceries to stock our apartment with.

“Ja, 80 km, gut,” he said, slamming it into the big ring and whipping it up to about 23 mph, which was a problem because we were going straight into a horrible headwind.

“This,” I thought, as I remembered not having eaten lunch, “is gonna fuggin’ suck.”

A lovely barfy morning

It had all started so innocently and good. I left our hotel in Bratislava at a quarter to five for an early morning stroll. There is a 10k loop along the river, over to the other bank and back, where you cross a couple of cool bridges and get to enjoy the unspoiled scenery of Bratislava.

However, 5:00 AM on Sunday is still full-bore party time, as the bars don’t close until five, the private clubs until seven, and the buy-your-own-and-keep-drinking-in-the-street doesn’t stop until you do.

Several of the people who had stopped were lying on the stone pavement in front of my hotel, empties littered about, and one lovely young girl squatted on her haunches dry heaving, long strings of spit dangling from her lips as she contemplated a pretty puddle of puke and all it contained.

All the way to the river people were singly staggering, or prostrate, or singing, or grimly clutching a bottle, daring it to be empty. Society’s carrying costs for booze are high, here as much as anywhere else. The trash cleanup alone must be massive, to say nothing of the social and medical implications of so much hardened drinking by so many people. This, however, is what tourism is really all about: Eating too much and drinking too much while you buy shit in strange places that you could get on Amazon for a lot less.

Away from the madding crowd

The nice thing about Bratislava is that you don’t have to go very far before you are all alone. Less than a kilometer down the river and it was completely devoid of people, the only sounds being gulls and terns fishing in the Danube. The sun hadn’t yet risen but everything was covered in the prettiest, softest pre-dawn light.

Since it has no industry to speak of, and since hardly anyone has a car, the air in Bratislava is spectacularly clean. You forget the carrying cost to your lungs of a society hell-bent on cars and the filthy burden it imposes on something as simple and necessary as breathing. The public transportation in Bratislava consists of buses and trams, and the much of it is aged.

Yet with much of the infrastructure dating back to the communist era, it still has better, faster, cheaper, and more efficient public transport throughout the city than anywhere in all of Southern or Northern California.

I finished my walk and got back to the Old City which had been commandeered by street crews and the few early morning tourists like me. I stopped in at a liquor shop for a quick cappuccino, and a drunk dude nursing his giant can of beer stopped me.

“You Dutch?”

“No.”

“German?”

“No.”

“You don’t look Russian.”

“Thank you, I guess.”

“Where are you from?”

“USA.”

“Were your parents white people?” he asked.

I kept on walking.

Back to the bus station

Woodrow and I got cleaned up, breakfasted, and went down to the main bus station. We had booked return tickets to Vienna on FlixBus, whose competitor was RegioJet. There were RegioJet signs everywhere, and all the cigarette stands were selling RegioJet tickets, but there was nothing for FlixBus.

I went up to one of the tobacco stands to find out where the FlixBus stop was, but there was a big sign that said: NO INFORMATION HERE ABOUT FLIXBUS. NO FLIXBUS TICKETS. REGIOJET INFORMATION AND TICKETS ONLY.

I went over to another tobacco stand and bought a bottle of water, using Slovak for only the third or fourth time in as many days. The lady handed me the water. “Where is the FlixBus stop for the 9:35?” I coyly asked, figuring that the purchase would worm it out of her.

“I don’t know,” she shrugged. “Do you want information about RegioJet?”

Woodrow and I picked a random bus stop that said “Blaggus Bus” and waited. People started to accumulate. A trio of rough looking dudes came over to us. “You going to Vienna?” one of them said in broken German.

“Yes.”

“Where do we get tickets?”

“FlixBus or RegioJet?” I asked, already knowing that this was the key to getting around at the Bratislava main bus station.

“What’s the difference?”

“RegioJet is everywhere. You can get tickets over there.”

“What is this FlixBus?”

“You have to buy your tickets online. And no one knows where the bus stop is.”

“You taking RegioJet?”

“FlixBus.”

Now he was really suspicious. “How come you taking FlixBus you don’t know where it is?”

“Bad purchasing decision,” I said.

They shrugged and went off to the RegioJet ticketseller.

After a while we started getting really nervous, but then the FlixBus showed up, only it was called BlaggusBus. So we took the Blaggus/FlixBus to Vienna. Which is, more or less, when the adventure really began.

END

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I had it just a minute ago

July 14, 2018 § 4 Comments

I remember the panic like it was yesterday, although it was thirteen years ago. I was fueling up my pickup in Lubbock, Texas, after finishing a recording session for a historical trail series I had produced for a consortium of museums on the Gulf Coast. My phone rang; it was Yasuko.

That alone was a bad sign because she and the kids were in Japan on summer vacation, and she never called when I was on the road. “Hi, Honey,” I said. “What’s up?”

“Cassady lost her passport,” was the terse reply.

“That’s not good,” I said.

“And she needs a new one in two days.”

“That’s not gonna happen.”

“Or else she misses the flight back and misses the start of school and gets removed from all of her classes.”

“That’s really not good,” I said.

The U.S. Embassy in WhateverLand is set up to handle the very Cat 5 Traveler flub of losing your passport or having it stolen. It’s just not set up to do it quickly. Since I was living in the Panhandle at the time, I happened to know the brother of the guy who ran the local congressional office for Mac Thornberry. Waaaay to the right of Donald Trump, politics don’t matter when you need a favor; I’ve never been too proud to beg.

With a lever pulled here and a button pushed there, Cassady got her passport in time to make it back to school, albeit at the cost of a re-booked, full fare ticket. What I learned from that was don’t ever lose your fuggin’ passport unless you are at home in the good ol’ U.S.A.

Bike rental in Bratislava

I don’t know if you ever use TripAdvisor.com, but it sucks. I’ve only used it once or twice and it is invariably bad. It’s like a bad case of Yelp, only antibiotic resistant. Slovakia is behind the times in a lot of ways, which is part of its charm. One of the times it is very much behind is bike rental.

Although TripAdvisor says that Bike Bratislava is the bomb, you don’t have much choice because it’s the only going bike rental concern in the city, therefore the country. The other “service” requires reservations at least a day in advance, and the bikes are all chained to a post down by the river. Few of them look like they would qualify for the Tour.

We got to Bike Bratislava bright and early, since it opens at 8:00 AM, but not very pointy-sharp, as it turned out. At first we weren’t even sure if it was the right place. Was it a bike shop? Was it a jail? In any case it was plastered with lies, including Trip Advisor, opening hours, and working phone number.

We hung around for a while but no one came, and we called the number that said “Please call anytime if you need help!” but no one answered, so we gave up and started walking around the city looking for a place that might rent a bike. We saw a lot of cool stuff, but no bike rental.

Thankfully, we had eaten a hearty breakfast at the hotel and so were well provisioned for the endless walking. The weather was perfect, which helped, and by the time we finally found a bike shop we were glad to step in and ask about a rental.

“Sorry, no rental,” the dude said. “But you might try Freddie Hostel Bratislava. They have some bikes.” The way he said “bikes” it was the snobbery of a dude at a good bike shop, and it meant “good enough for a wanker like you but I wouldn’t be caught dead on it.”

“Thanks,” I said, and we retraced our steps a mile or so to Freddie’s. The lobby was narrow and dark, and as we entered I spied four truly wretched bicycles chained up against the wall. At a glance you could tell all you needed to know about these steeds: Rusted chains, soft tires, no tread, derailleurs that looked like they hadn’t been shifted since ’98 … in sum, exactly what you’d expect for $10/day and a $50 dollar deposit apiece.

The very nice lady took our passport numbers, got my phone number, and sent us on our way. “Be careful!” she said as we left. “Slovak drivers are not too careful about the bicycle!”

Crazy fast downhill

We descended from Freddie’s all the way to the Old City, where we wound up on a high speed, very narrow two-lane road dropping down to the river. Up against the edge, where we were jammed, helmetless, there were numerous giant gratings. I was suddenly thankful for the giant MTB tires and the shocks. Cars passed us within inches. We were scared.

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At the bottom of the hill we navigated another awful street, then crossed it over to the Danube bike path. The whole time we were bouncing and slamming like a frenetic drumset, and the bike path, which was under construction, kept up the bouncy ride. We crossed the river and got ready to start on the scenic paved path, when Woodrow stopped.

“Hey Dad!” he said.

“What?”

“I lost my passport.”

“That’s a problem,” I said, which he already knew because his face was white.

“It must have come out of my pocket, maybe on that bad downhill where we kept hitting all those gratings.”

“Did you leave it on the counter back at the bike rental?”

“No, I’m sure I put it in my pocket. But check your phone. They have your number and would have called, right?”

I checked my phone. Nothing. “There’s only one thing to do, then.”

“What’s that?”

“Retrace our steps.”

Return to hell

If the trip there had been bad, going in reverse, the wrong way against traffic, uphill on bikes, was way, way, way worse. In addition to the fact that there was no way we’d see the passport, Woodrow had put it in a plastic zipper bag along with a couple hundred euros. With all the sharp-eyed street people we’d seen, there was no way that plump little present could have gone unnoticed.

I sent Woodrow back to the hotel, reasoning that only one of us needed to get killed on this fool’s mission. About halfway up the long hill, cars honking, my heart in my mouth, trying to scan the gutter and not get hit, something happened: My seat bolt fell out and the saddle jerked straight upwards into my butt.

Now I couldn’t even sit down, making it even harder to concentrate on the scavenger hunt.

I retraced the entire route and of course found nothing. At the same time I tried to figure out how we’d get the new passport. He had no other physical ID. The U.S. embassy was near our hotel, but good luck getting anything done there on Friday afternoon. Although no one had checked our passports coming into Slovakia, passport control going the other way into Austria was a whole different matter.

In addition to the practical problem of replacing the passport, there was the more minor issue of my German classes, and his, which were to begin on Monday in Vienna. I gritted my teeth at the thought of $1,600 euros flushed down the drain. And then there was my buddy Damir, who had set me up with a nice road bike that I was to pick up on Sunday. Looks like I’d have to flake on that, too.

The bike was unrideable and I had reached the hostel, deciding to turn it in. The lady was surprised to see me back so soon, as we’d rented the bikes for the entire day. “Everything okay?” she asked.

“No,” I said. “The saddle has come loose. I want to return the bike, thanks.”

“Oh,” she said. “We can fix it.”

“I’m good,” I said.

“Well, let me get you your security deposit, then. I can’t give you the other deposit until you bring the other bike back.”

“No worries,” I said. “That’s the least of my problems.”

She rummaged around behind the desk and handed me my security deposit. “And here’s the passport you left behind, too.”

I stared at her for a second. “Really?” I couldn’t believe it.

“Yes, I put it in the safe.”

I didn’t know what to say, so I went with the safe move. “Thank you so much.”

“Oh, you’re welcome. Are you sure you don’t want us to fix the bike?”

“I’m sure,” I said.

And I was. Very, very sure.

I got back to the hotel and we celebrated with some awesome Turkish food, one of us with more eager, relieved abandon than the other.

END

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The kingdom of Sagan

July 13, 2018 § 2 Comments

Travel has its hierarchies, and the bus station is at the bottom, which for me is fitting. We crossed the street and immediately noticed a sign absent from Vienna’s well-heeled subway stops: “WARNING: PICKPOCKETS!” I instinctively grabbed my ass and shuffled my phone into my front pocket.

Outside the station sat a forlorn beggar, swarmed with the smells of panhandling and looking miserable beyond any words as he proffered his dog-eared paper cup. I emptied some change into it and he smiled but it was reflexive, glum, beatdown, sad.

Woodrow and I made a nest on the hard plastic chairs and stared at the timetables on the monitor. All the buses were going east, poor. Suitcases were ratty, people were tired, and unlike the rich travel of the Vienna airport, there were lots of kids herded by harried moms and gruff, tattooed dads. I counted ten languages, none of which was English or German until a worried lady came over and said, “Excuse me.”

The “I am weird” sign that follows me wherever I go illuminates as brightly in bus stops as airports.

“Yes?”

“Can you read English or German?”

“Yes.”

“We want to put our bags in the locker but don’t understand the instructions.”

The lady was Chinese and was the leader of a small band of travelers who each was traveling with a giant suitcase containing their own personal rock collection judging from the weight of each bag. I went over to the lockers, read the instructions in both languages and understood them in neither.

As we discussed the conundrum of How To Use A Bus Locker, a young woman with a massive fly tattooed on her thigh strolled up. The compound eyes were particularly large and fierce looking, and I couldn’t stop looking, which was the point.

“Here,” she said, reaching into the Chinese lady’s purse, fishing out some coins, and feeding them into the locker.

I wandered back to the chair and motioned Woodrow to follow me outside. On the street a dude on a skateboard began climbing up a wall like Spider-Man while his buddy videoed it. He got about thirty feet up in the air and began doing gymnastic tricks, the mis-calculation of any one of which would have plunged him to his death, resulting in the instant pillaging of his bags by the hopeful street people.

Bus bunnies

We got on the bus and the fighting started. Everyone had an assigned seat, including the guy sitting in Woodrow’s seat. “I think that’s my seat,” Woodrow said.

“Maybe, but there’s no assigned seating on the bus.”

A holler of languages sprouted up as people argued that yes, there was assigned seating, and tickets began to sprout as each person vied for his side of the argument. “How can it be assigned?” the man protested, waving his ticket.

“Look there!” an old woman with a giant plastic bag snapped. “You are number 20C. You should go to 20C and give the nice young boy his seat.”

The gruff man shrugged. “You know why I’m not sitting in 20C?” he said. “I’ll tell you why.”

“Yes, tell me why!” the old lad rejoined.

“Because there is no fucking 20C!”

This threw everyone into Next Level Tizzy, and people began counting back the rows, which ended at 19. The gruff Serbian dude smiled grimly. “See? Even in Serbia we can count to 20.”

By now the bus was mostly full and the Serb yelled at the driver. “There’s no Row 20, eh?”

“Not today,” the driver said as we pulled away from the curb. Woodrow had found an empty seat next to a very pretty young woman who turned out to be from Vienna but who was going to college in Bratislava. I nodded off to sleep. My neighbor was from Spain and uninterested in talking to Old Dude.

IMG_6745

Give us this day our daily bread for $35

Before we hit the bus station, though, we had breakfast at the high holy temple of Joseph Brot. This is the bakery of all bakeries, where the bread puts all other bread to shame. Woodrow smartly ordered the eggs Benedict, which had none of the famous bread. I say smartly because it was high calorie and filled with lots of stuff to keep your motor running through lunchtime.

I on the other hand ordered a piece of sourdough and butter. It was tremendous, but disappointing on two fronts. First, it was not nearly as good as the bread baked by my friend Lisa Barnes in Redondo Beach, who is about to open a bakery there in a few weeks. Second, the entire breakfast set me back $35 bucks, violating the principal rule of food: The pricier the food the less the enjoyment.

In other words, there is no enjoyment from a $500 gourmet meal. Zero, none. On the other hand, the enjoyment from a tasty $3 meal served on the streets of Kunming out of a plastic bag is virtually without compare. Worst of all, the slice of bread left me feeling starvey and ravenous long before the bus ride began.

IMG_6739

Wrong stop Sam

We got the to bus stop in Bratislava, or should I say we got to a bus stop in Bratislava? “Hurry, Woodrow!” I said, and we scurried off the packed bus. But we alit and I noticed we were the only ones who had gotten off. The bus pulled away.

“Are you sure this is the right stop, Dad?”

“Yes, absolutely,” i said, staring at the freeway, the tall buildings, and the ample nowhere that stretched out before us.

“Doesn’t really look like the touristy Old City you were telling me about, Dad.”

“It’s probably just over here,” I said.

After a couple of miles we came to a bridge, which thankfully had a pedestrian walkway, which meant more walking. As we crossed the Donau we could see Bratislava Castle on the hill and the distinct signs of approaching civilization, that is, other tourists.

Whatever we were expecting, Bratislava seemed to have it. The Old City was narrow, quaint, packed with gawky tourists just like us, and filled with row after row of open air tables at which people sat, ate, drank, and watched all the other people watching all the other people. We checked into the hotel and were suddenly overwhelmed by hunger from our trek. Across the way was a traditional Slovak Thai restaurant. We decamped there and ate. Might as well go native.

END

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