Wherein DF travels to Mitteleuropa and recounts his merrie adventures to his adoring broad readership.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

The end of the road

Grüss Gott, Broad Readership. I write to thee from München, or for those of you not versed in the Germanic tongue, Munich. I only just arrived late this afternoon, leaving me just enough time to visit the Hofgarten, buy some books at an English-language bookstore, grab a farewell schnitzel and Löwenbräu, and write some last minute words before grabbing the night train back to A-dam for tomorrow's flight back.

And the timing seems right. The road has been fantastic, but it has also been long, and as of yesterday I was exhibiting some of the symptoms of travel fatigue, such as a desire to stay in bed and nap rather than get out and expore Liechtenstein. Now to be fair, the FL doesn't really require much in the way of exploration, and that may well have contributed to my relative indifference to my situation, but after having been on the road for five weeks I think it is high time that I return to the real world that is the U.S.

Fear not, though, those of you who have written to me suspecting that my last missive from abroad would represent the termination of this blog. There are several wrap up posts in the works, as well as a photo highlights tour that I will assemble as soon as I have the techology at my fingertips. And with that, B.R., I bid ye and this overpriced Bavarian Internet cafe Auf Wiedersehen.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

DF on the FL

The burning Q, Broad Readership, that I know from your desperate and frankly overly numerous emails is, what does one do in the FL? It is a good question, as most of the literature on the topic suggests that this countrito rates only the briefest of visits, and that purely for the novelty cachet. But as you might expect, I have looked deeper into this principality, and have discovered various diversions that the shallow travel guides have not seen fit to appreciate. To wit:

1. Ascent to the Castle. The Schloss Liechtenstein is where the royal family lives, and it is visible from its mountainside perch above Vaduz from almost anywhere in the capital. A walk up to the Schloss is a must-do in the FL for many reasons. First, the views are enormously beautiful, and you can see almost the entire country from way up there (admittedly, there is not a lot of country to see, but still, nice). The walk is also punctuated by a series of brass plaques commemorating various features of the country (governance, history, etc.), so the hike is edifying intellectually as well as physically and aesthetically. Mind, you cannot actually go into the castle, but the environs are pretty and are, to my surprise, punctuated largely by vineyards (the Prince has a wine cellar that is open to the public but only alas to groups of ten or more).

2. Mixing with sad Liechtensteiners mourning FC Vaduz' loss. Though I much would rather have seen the country in celebration mode after an FCV victory, it was interesting to see the somber procession out of the stadium. There's something extra-sad about a downcast fan with full facepaint on (and, thanks to the free FCV facepainting booth at the Rheinparkstadion, there were more than a few of them). I went to a bar on the main drag, Städle str., and joined in with some fans sulking over the loss. I was sulking too when I discovered that a single, smallish beer cost 5 Swiss francs (4 bucks).

3. Trying to find some decent, nonoverpriced food. When I came here, I expected that things would be cheaper both because of the obscurity of the location and because the Swiss franc is one of the few currencies that is still worth less than the US dollar. So wrong was I. Last night, I went to a pizza restaurant only to find that the smallest 'za ran 20 SFr (15 bucks, but still, whoa). Even the cheapo snack stands have joined the conspiracy. Brat at an imbiss: 6 SFr (five-odd bucks). Burger at McDonalds: 7.50 SFr (six damn US dollars!). The only cheap thing around is the free Net access at this out of the way Telecom FL store in which I currently sit. But yesterday I had to print some stuff (not possible here), so went instead to the Landesbibliothek (National Library, the top two floors of an office building) and had to pay 15 SFr (12 bucks) for libe access and a print card. I ultimately did have success on the food front, though, finding another, cheaper pizza joint (with really great pizza) that I have now patronized three times in two days.

4. Getting the all-important passport stamp. It costs 2 SFr, but damn is it worth the money: a supersized piece of incontrovertible proof that you have, in fact, joined the elite fraternity of visitors to the FL.

5. Damn good hikes. Although the Innsbruck hike stands out for sheer difficulty and sweatiness, the hiking in FL, while not as challenging in terms of physical effort, provided a taste of the real alpine experience in a way that slightly more developed I-bruck did not. The only major hike I did took me from Vaduz town center up past the Schloss and then a km and a half of steep upward ascent to the townlet of Triesenberg, which (I am told) is the only place on earth where the obscure Walser dialect is still spoken. This is true: within the obscure, idiosyncratic community that is Liechtenstein, there is an ethnic minority that has enough sense of identity that they have created a museum on their own behalf to memorialize their distinctive dialect and purportedly distinctive way of life. Truth be told, I chose not to enter said museum. But the hike was fantastic: straight up the slopes on the west side of the FL past Alpine scenery that could have been straight out of artists' mockups for Heidi of the Swiss Alps. We're talking babbling brooks, picturesque waterfalls, cows with cowbells grazing on green mountain slopes, and vistas so intense that I took countless redundant photos.

6. The covered bridge. This, B.R., was absolute heaven for the geography obsessive in me: a pedestrian only covered wooden bridge that spans the Rhine and has a marker indicating where the border between LIE and der Schweiss lies. You can rest assured that I took many a photograph of myself standing in both countries at once. I truly do think that this may have satsified my desire for obscure geographical tourist cliche. For now.

Three-nation ambulation

Some of the B.R. that are fleeter of foot (and hardier of lung) may have run cross-country in high school or even college. Fair play to ye. However, I will wager that no members of the B.R. have ever run across a country, by which I mean not traversing a miniscule slice of its geographical area, but rather beginning at one side of its main highway on one foreign border and traversing said highway at pace until crossing the same nation`s border on the other side. Yet yesterday, B.R., that is exactly what I did.

It began with a bus ride to Buchs, on the Swiss border, just on the western bank of the Rhine across from the Liechtensteiner burg of Schaan. I ran from Switzerland into the FL, feeling great, until I saw a sign reading "Feldkirch 15km." Feldkirch is the Austrian town just on the opposite side of the highway that traverses the FL, which--according to maps I had consulted--I understood to be a mere six km away. Turns out that the Buchs-Felkirch distance is 6km as the crow flies, but the actual distance traveling along the highway is significantly longer.

Now I realize that 15km is not a particularly daunting distance, though somewhat hefty, but the problems this presented were several: I was running in a tiny but transalpine nation, and thus at altitude; I was out of shape, not having run in weeks; and I am not accustomed to running that far even when in shape (a 10k is as far as I ever feel it necessary to run, and even that is a rarity).

But I persevered, through landscapes that ranged from spectacularly Heidi-of-the-Swiss-Alps-esque to dull and industrial. And as I exited the town of Schaan and entered Nendeln, I realized that there was no way I'd make it without a break, and so, dear B.R., I crapped out. I pulled up, went into a BP station, got a Powerade, and walked for a spell. Not too long, mind you, but long enough that I may have tarnsihed the cachet of running across an entire country. That said, when I began again, I felt much better, and upon seeing the sign announcing that the international border was a mere 1.7km away, I felt marvelous.

There were, alas, no crowds to greet me upon my arrival in Austria. My head was wreathed with no laurels, and no journalists vied for my attention. No one even checked my passport (which I had stashed in my pocket in a ziploc bag to assure that my carefully collected transit stamps would not be ruined by sweat). Instead, I had a diet coke, made some calls with my Austria-only phone card (the FL has its own phone system, annoyingly enough), and waited for the Liechtenstein Bus to take me and my idiosyncratic sense of obscure accomplishment back to the heart of the prinicpality.

Monday, June 13, 2005

FC Vaduz 0:1 FC Schaffhausen

I, broad r., am a football bloodhound. I can sense a game happening in the vicinity using just my own senses and keen instincts. Yesterday, for example, I ate dinner on the early side and then decided to climb up to the castle (it stays light out til nine thirty or so). On my way to the top, I was continually assailed by what sounded like distant drums, some chanting, even cheering. There was a football game afoot in the principality. I could sense it. When I got farther up toward the castle, I saw floodlights on at the Rheinstadion in the distance and all was confirmed. I ran the rest of the way to the castle, snapped a quick few shots (its really nothing much in comparison to Prague, Budapest, or Salzburg), and raced back down the hill. I had no idea how long the game had been on, what it was about, or if I`d be able to get in. Plus, the castle is high along the hillside of Vaduz, while the Rheinstadion is on the far side of the town, along the Rhine river, about 2-3ds of the country away. That said, getting there took me about fifteen minutes on the trot.

Some background: the local professional team (or at least, the best of the local professional teams) is FC Vaduz, and they play in the Swiss Second Division. Unlike in the US, there is a flow among the major and minor leagues so that the last few finishers in the top football league in a country are usually sent down to play in the second division ("relegated"), while the top few finishers in the league below are sent up to play in the top league ("promoted"). Thus it is possible that a top team one year can be playing in the second flight the next, or can tumble all the way down the ladder to obscurity; contrariwise, it is possible that a team that is unheard of can climb the ladder through the various divisions to become one of the elite.

FC Vaduz has been perched on the precipice of the Swiss elite league for some years now. They`ve been a top team in the Swiss second division for a few years, and last year earned a playoff place against Xamax, one of the lower finishers in the Swiss top flight, which Vaduz lost. This year, they finished second in the second division, earning a playoff against Swiss top league side FC Schaffhausen. In the first of the two-game series, Vaduz drew one-all at Schaffhausen, a good result meaning that they had only to win at home to advance to the top flight. That game was yesterday.

By the time I arrived at the Rheinstadion, the game was all but over. It was in extra time, and the scoreboard told the unfortunate tale: Vaduz 0, Gast 1. Schaffhausen had broken a scoreless tie in the 75th minute, and as I watched from a hill alongside the stadium with lots of hopeful Liechtensteiners, time expired, Schaffhausen celebrated their narrow survival in the top flight league, and Vaduz left the field in dejection.

It would have been great fun--and would have had fantastic obscurity cachet--if I had been able to see the game in its entirety. My obsessions with Liechtenstein and football have intersected before: I follow FC Vaduz a bit, pay more attention still to the Liechtenstein national side, and am still angry as hell at Charlie Connelly for stealing my idea for a book about the team that he published as "Stamping Grounds" (a great book, but I could have done better). And the coincidence that I was here on a day of such importance for the country`s football is unbelievable. I still can`t decide if I was lucky to have seen a sliver of the game or unlucky to have missed most of it.

One thing is clear, though: I am awful luck for the home team. After watching three games in Europe so far this year, the home team has won none, tied one (Hertha Berlin, but that was a tragic result), and lost twice (Vitesse, Vaduz--the latter with particularly devastating implications). The home team has gone scoreless in 270 minutes in the games I have seen, including a missed penalty, and the visitors have scored three. Given my track record, I should be barred from the grounds of any team that has any desire to win a game.

The last thing I expected to see in Innsbruck

Was a beach volleyball tournament, not least because there is no beach in Innsbruck. Yet as I walked through the town a couple mornings ago, I heard the deafening blare of rap music, and followed it to find a makeshift stadium alongside the River Inn, with an imported sand volleyball court and all.

There was no cost for admittance, so I walked on in and watched a few sets (I think they are sets--the groups of points that are played till 21, with the first team to two sets winning). The women were pretty good, I think. They looked the part at least: tall as all hell, wraparound shades, scandalously skimpy clothing. There was a team in red and one in black, and even this novice could tell that the red team was more skilled, so I of course had to root for the underdog reds.

I looked through some promotional materials while I was there and was surprised to learn that beach v-ball is kind of a thing in Austria. Apparently the country won the European Beach Volleyball championships a couple years back, and there appears to be some kind of national Austrian Beach Vball league (of course, I could have this all wrong--it was all printed only in German). Good for them, and all, but it seems like a really strange avocation for a landlocked country where it`s cold as a witch`s teat a lot of the time. Alpine sports like skiing or bobsled I could get, or even sports that don`t require a certain kind of climate or geographical feature, like running or soccer, find, but beach volleyball would never have occurred to me as an Austrian pastime. But apparently it is, so hey, good for Österreich.

Anyway, the first set went to the black team pretty handily. Between sets and at breaks, the DJ at the court cranked up the (American) rap music to a deafening volume in, it seemed, an attempt to fire up the crowd. As it was 11am, and the tiny stadium was only half-full with people who, like me, had just wandered in out of curiosity, the announcer`s demands that we get pumped up seemed kind of ridiculous, and they certainly didn`t produce anything more than a few reluctant, coerced claps. As the second set started, I began to root more for the red team, as did most of the people present, with the result that the red team started to turn it on and make some good plays. They were up by eight or so points, though, when it all fell apart--the black team eventually got on a roll, the reds fell apart, and the black team steamrolled to another clear victory. At that point, I was kind of enjoying watching the games, but that was it for that match, and when they brought out the next team, it was dudes, so I (along with most of the male spectators) took off.

Farewell good friend

O sunglasses. You were a good and trusted companion now for this past month in Europa. You shielded my eyes from the sun in nations across the continent, and asked nothing in return. Indeed, you only cost 15 bucks, a virtual steal for the value, at the Tysons Corner Hechts. And while I purchased you near enough to the women`s clothing section that I was never altogether sure you weren`t actually intended for a lady`s cranium, you fit my unusually long face (as some of the BR have less than kindly pointed out) perfectly, regardless of the gender for which you were intended.

Twice I thought I had lost you forever. First, when I left you in the luggage room in Dresden, and only discovered you a day later when I picked up my duffel bag. Second, when I wrote you off as missing in Budapest, only to find you hiding in the dregs of aforementioned duffel. But the third time was to be the last. I believe it was at that overpriced internet cafe in Innsbruck, where I must have left you on the counter as I wandered out, too irritated at the .20 euro/minute rate to take care to remember you, with nightfall preventing me from noticing your absence.

One could say that four weeks means nothing, that it is but a trivial amount of time in the grand scheme. Yet for those who know me better, four weeks represents by far the longest I have been able to hang on to a pair of sunglasses, and thus this time was indeed truly special. Yes, sunglasses, as I am hiking tomorrow in the Liechtenstein highlands, with the sun bright in my unshielded eyes, you truly will be missed. Arrivaderci.

Chillin in the FL

FL, as the BR may well know, stands for Fürstentums Liechtenstein (Principality of Liechtenstein), and it is where I currently lay my scene. Where? asks the BR. Well, at this point I might refer you to the one of the veeeeery first posts of this blog where I roadmapped the trip and gave hints that a trip to this obscure nationlet would be in the offing, but that wouldn`t be too cool. Instead I will simply note that Liechtenstein is one of the smallest independent countries in the world, just over a hundred square miles large, and a mere 6km across. It is squeezed into the Alps between Austria and Switzerland, and while nominally an independent country, it is dependent on Switzerland for its national defense, border control, postal system, currency, and other infrastructural necessities.

In FL`s defense, it does have its own bus and telephone system, a cool castle, a pretty good football team (about which more later), some hiking and skiing trails, distinctive postage stamps, and some very lax banking laws that give it a high standard of living (and damn high prices to go with it, alas).

Fair enough, you reply, but why the FL as opposed to any other country? Well, part of it is the novelty value. Even as I sit here in the national library (the top two stories of an office building), having just taken a brief walk down the street to Switzerland and back, I cannot help but be indordinately psyched at being at the heart of one of the world`s strangest geographical oddities. I have long been fascinated with accidents of geopolitical fate that resulted in minicountries like Andorra, Monaco, San Marino, etc., but have yet to visit one. Now here I am.

For the vast majority of you who find this predilection for geographical oddity utterly obscure, I proffer reason numero dos: denouement. I`ve been on the road for a long time now, coming up on five weeks, and the last three or so especially have been great but really quite intense. In the interest of taking some time to relax and reflect on it all before I return to the States, I thought the FL would be an ideal place. A little hiking, a little chillin, a little updating the blog--good times. More on what one does (or, at least, what I do) in this prince among principalities soon.

Gettin high in Salzburg and Innsbruck

Having originally planned three days of chillin in S-burg, I eventually decided to change things up a bit and leave after two to head to Innsbruck for a couple days. I was pleased with the choice, as it gave me a chance to get a taste of the Tirolean Alps (though the damned mountains outed me as a tourist non-stop, as I walked around Innsbruck constantly gawking at the snowcapped peaks, often uttering an inadvertent but audible "whoa"). And while they`re only a couple hours apart, they`re really quite different, with the exception that appreciating the best sides of each town requires--but richly rewards--effortful climbs to places on high. To wit:

In Salzburg, easily the best thing about the town is the castle that sits on a bluff above it. Though there is a funicular railroad that delivers most tourists to the top, I chose instead to hike up the road, which is both cheap and much the better way to go because it provides a way to avoid the aforementioned tourists and, if only for a moment, have part of the castle (more or less) to yourself. As I got to the top, sweaty mess that I was, I stood out on one of its patios (probably not the right word--suburban homesteads have patios, but do castles?) and could hear, faintly but clearly, a string quartet performing something by Mozart (I think--the B.R. knows I`ve got nothing by way of musical knowhow) from waaaaay down in the town square. For just a second, it was one of those so-perfect-you-could`t-script-it moments. Then a tour group of loud Italians poured onto the patio (again, word choice, I know) and I couldn`t hear the music anymore. Other rewards from hikes: the view from atop the Capuchin Monastery in the new town, and the wonderfully fresh and hot wiener schnitzel at the al fresco restaurant atop the Mönschsberg on the hill opposite the castle.

In Innsbruck, the medieval part of the old town is great, and the views of the Alps from just about anywhere are incredible, but at this time of year, it`s all about the hiking. I went to the visitors center where I was told that my options included staying another day and joining up with the moderate group hikes at 9am (meh) or buying a relief map of the area and setting out on my own. I went for the map, and over lunch of mystery sausage ("knacker"--I have now set a practice of going into a restaurant or to a food stand and ordering the most obscure-sounding sausage possible. Astonishingly enough, this has not yet steered my taste buds or my irascible tum wrong) figured out what seemed to be a reasonable, and reasonably accessible hike. I set out, finding the trailhead with little difficulty, and eventually got a good, if somewhat sweaty, rhythm going. I was just about to congratulate myself for my robust vigor when I began to be passed (on their descent, that is) by a stream of elderly people (including one nun, hiking sticks and all, Grüss Gott-ing all passersby) who had obviously negotiated the hike before me with little difficulty. Thus feeling not a little foolish, I chose not to stop after an hour and turn back, but rather to keep heading up the path, even though it changed on the map from "low" to "moderate" difficulty. I am not sure who creates these designations, or what their notion of "high" difficulty would be, but as I was heading up a grade so steep that I had to take care not to smack myself in the face with my kneecaps, I began to think that the difficulty ratings were meant for Alpine natives, not city dwellers like myself. On balance, though, I did well--I was not at all overcome by the altitude, was not passed by any natives on the ascent, did not fall on my ass on the descent, and was not eaten by a mountain goat. Plus, the views of the Innsbruck valley were awesome in the true sense of the word, and the next morning I was intrigued to find that my calves and ankles were so sore I could barely ambulate.

Easing up in S-burg


When planning this trip, I thought of it in three parts: language school in Berlin, a tour through the regal capitals of Central Europe, then...undecided. I suspected that by the time I was done with the big trifecta (Prague, Vienna, Budapest), I`d be ready for a change of pace, and this turns out to have been spectacularly true. Being in those three cities was great, but a trifle exhausting, as I pounded the pavement nonstop in order to make sure that I wrung as much out of each day as possible.

Thus after BPest, I decided to return to Austria, and to Salzburg in particular, where I imagined there would be far less to do. And, following the six-hour train voyage from the BP to the SB, I arrived to find just that: not a lot. Don`t get me wrong, Salzburg is gorgeous, a picture-postcard town that has both retained the character it developed during its time as an indpendent archnbishopric in the Holy Roman Emperor and come into the modern world gracefully. But after taking a quick spin around the old town, I had done pretty much all the main stuff there was to do (save for the castle, about which more later), and could relax over a long dinner and then watch a european world cup qualifier at a sports bar (Faroe Islands 0:2 Ireland) without feeling as though I should have been doing something else in order to savor all the Salz that this particular Burg had on offer.

Szechenyi Furdo

A brief explanation of above title for the Bröd Readership:

"Furdo" (with additional diacritics) is Hungarian for bath (as in public bath, not as in bathtub), and Szechenyi--yeah, I have no idea. But I do know that the S.F. are the more obscure of Budapest`s two main public baths, and the one thing that folks on the road told me I had to do in the city.

Personally, the thought freaked me out. In the U.S., "public bath" has less-than-savory connotations as a locus for gay sex parties circa 1981. Also, the "public" part of the equation did not thrill me. Are these things clean, what with being open to any damn skanky tourist?

Yet while Budapest definitely grew on me by day 2, it still is not a city rich in stuff to see (more a stuff do to place--cruises on Danube, sitting in bars or cafes, etc), so I bit the proverbial bullet and decided to head to the Szechenyi F.

First hurdle: no swim trunks. Though I considered the possibility of going there in my travel underwear (black boxer-briefs), this just seemed too weird for what was already a kind of weird thing to do, so I bit the bullet and went by a store that sold surf apparel imported from the US. Bad news: the cheapest trunks available cost 8000 forints. Slightly less bad news: even with the generous exchange rate, that still comes to 40 bucks US.

But I had saved money all the while in Hungary, so I splurged, bought the trunks, and headed to the baths. And I must say,they were awesome. Easily the best thing I did in Budapest. There are three large pools outside of differing temps. The best (and most popular) of the three is as hot as a jacuzzi, and is surrounded by classical fountains that spray streams of water you can stand under for a delicious (and free) water massage. I assure you, B.R., it was heavenly. So much so that I stayed in the various pools and rooms til my hands were pale, pickled and prunish. So much so that I went the next morning early, and then again that same day.

To be fair, there were some drawbacks. For instance, the various steam rooms and saunas did not really do it for me. I have never seen the appeal of saunas so much, except when leaving them and no longer suffocating in the oppressive heat. Plus, they were typically crowded with beefy elderly Magyars who were a little too into the experience for my taste, with the sighing and the profuse sweating, and the massaging each other, and the post-sauna self-rub-downs with ice chips.

And it was often painful to see the aforementioned beefy elderly Magyars crammed into tiny, tight swim apparrel (by contrast to what most of the men wore, even my black boxer briefs would have seemed modest).

But on the whole, the baths ruled, and were well worth both the admission price and the extortionate amount I paid for the damn powder-blue Oakley swim trunks.

Saturday, June 11, 2005

Itinerariat 6/3 - 6/10

6/3 Up early but forego expensive Viennese breakfast options for McDonalds as desire to not be ripped off overcomes desire to not commit most basic faux pas of American tourists abroad. Arrive Leopold museum as it opens, invest in audioguide which turns out to be extraordinarily helpful aid to period of art with which I am woefully unfamiliar: fin de siecle Vienna with the Klimt, the Schiele, etc. Art edgy, scandalous, f-in brilliant. Am approached by Austrians with TV camera who seek to interview me but beg off for not knowing langauge. Am exhausted after museum, but refuel at Pizza restaurant and, after visit to disappointing Danube, head back down to Kaiser Apartments in Hofburg (former Hapsburg imperial residence). Silver collection mundane; historical section engaging; exhibit regarding "Sisi" (Empress Elizabeth) strange. Apparently she is a cult figure abroad, famed for her depressive conduct, refusal to do imperial duties, and eventual murder by Italian anarchist. Delicious nap, then dinner at fantastic falafel joint, after which I eventually head to Burgkino for late nite showing of the Third Man.

6/4 Breakfast again at McDonalds (I know, I know, but excuses for this made elsewhere on blog). Musikhaus not nearly as good as advertised in Lonely Planet, though might have been more interesting if I had been seven years old and/or high. Lunch at possibly the most German restaurant in the world--Schnitzelwirt Schmidt--where I order garlicky schnitzel. Diagnosis: delicious. Nap, then some emailing and blogging, then find self caught in rain. Hide for a while in Cafe Sperl, then make way to expat bar where I watch world cup qualifying game amid group of crazed, oranje clad Dutch people. Holland defeats Romania, all are happy.

6/5 Off to Budapest. Arrival at hostel successful, though it is really just an apartment that owners occasionally rent parts of to travelers. Heroes Square and Terror House create effective one-two punch of post-Commie atmosphere, though am so tired at end thanks to failure to eat during day that cannot appreciate latter as I would have liked. Begin hegira around Budapest where every place listed in LP guide that sounds palatable is closed (Sunday night--but I thought Hungarians were all atheiests? Turns out, just lazy). End up surrendernig and eating, sulkily, in Pizza Hut. Truth be told, 'za is delicious.

6/6 I rock Budapest: up early to have "breakfast" foisted on me by hostel owner's son: three slices of stale wonder bread, jam, and a slice of processed cheese. He seems so pleased with his food preparation talents that I feel obligated to eat it. Then wander city, seeing Parlament, St Istvan Cathedral, and finally arriving at old Budapest Market, which rules. Great food stands upstairs, where--amid Hungarians quaffing booze at 10am--I down langos and beef goulash. Well fortified, I head to Castle Hill in Buda, more notable for views of Pest than for itself. Still, damn fine castle. Then descend on irritatingly pricey funicular to take tram along Danube, then climb Buda's other hill, Citadella, atop which is fortification originally built by Hapsburgs to "defend" Hungarians from more revolts in 1848, and since augmented by Soviet era monuments to -- of course -- Soviets themselves. Sweaty yet pleased with self, walk across Danube, stop at market for more delicious (and cheap!!) Hungarian food, then stop to buy swim trunks, and off to baths. Spend hours soaking in various pools, steam baths, saunas, amid overweight elderly Hungarians in disturbingly revealing swim suits. Baths are utterly relaxing that I barely notice affront to aesthetic sensibilities. Dinner at Frici Papa (pronounced "Freaky Papa"), where I have great grilled turkey with potatoes and beer for like five bucks. Nightcap at Hungarian al fresco bar, then well earned sleep.

6/7 Up early to baths for an hour or so, then train out to Roman ruins at Aquincum (in obscure third section that was merged into modern day Budapest: Obuda--rare trifecta now complete!). Truth be told, they werent that great, even for having been ruined, but Ive never seen anything of the kind, so it was worth it. Back to BP for mediocre pizza, then nap, then frantic attempt to spend rest of forints. Purchase books at great English language used bookstore, then decide to go to baths one lest time, so spend another several hours soaking and then back for poor nights sleep (because was moved from single room to dorm-style accommodation that is so not what I am into).

6/8 Most of day spend traveling to Salzburg via Vienna. Depart BPest 9.30, arrive SBurg 3.45. Accommodations are budget travel dream: clean yet totally selfcontained (ie not shared dorm crap). Only objection is damned effigies of arrow-punctured St Sebastian all over the place (Jugendherberge is affiliated w/church of same name). Creeps me out. Tour SBurg, which takes about fifteen minutes. Make terrible choice to eat at "Wienerwald", sort of an Austrian Dennys, and then discover that 50% off deal is only for people over 50, so end up paying full price for medocre and tiiiiiiiny schnitzel natur. End up spending night in Irish bar watching Irish national soccer team struggle to defeat the Faroe Islands (yes, they are a country, apparently). Enjoy tasty apfel strudel for dessert.

6/9 Up to discover that included breakfast consists of unlimited number of brötchen (biscuits) with jam, butter, and/or liver spread. Try the latter and find it surprisingly tasty. Spend some time reading and writing in cafe, then walk around city a bit in rain. Decide to head to Castle, and rain conveniently clears, allowing spectacular views of town center once I ascend to top. Can hear musicians performing in castle all the way from town square. Highlight of castle: definitely torture chamber. Descend to eat fantastic schnitzel at Wilder Mann; become slightly concerned that am developing schnitzel addiction. Must counteract with liberal intake of antidote (half-liters of Stiegl, Salzburger bier). Statutory midday nap follows, then more wandering of town. Sample of ubiquitous candy, Mozartkugeln, reveals that they are tasty but unextraordinary. Dinner: scandalously delicious sausage from food truck. So many wursts, so little time.

6/10 Lazy morning reading in cafe, then get restless and hike to top of hill in new town by Capuchin Monastery. Hike down, then cross river to hike up other hill to Mönchberg and eat at restaurant poised on cliff overlooking town. Enjoy wiener schnitzel (yes, again--what of it?) while ogling spectacular views, and am eventually shooed from seat by own conscience as others arrive seeking to eat at tiny patio. Then trip to Innsbruck, where I wander old town a bit, staring in tourist wonderment at majestic alps, and have surprisingly good indian food for dinner.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Magyars: who are they?

The marauding Magyar tribe made its debut into western european civilization in, I think, the ninth century, when they poured over the carpathian mountains into the danube basin, set up camp, and then set about raiding and generally causing havoc among the various feudalities and kingdoms of the early medieval world. Eventually defeated in a battle the name of which I cannot recall, they succumbed to the civilizing (so to speak) influence of christianity in 1000 AD or so and have occupied the geographical space more or less associated with modern day hungary ever since.

But what are these people like? you are wondering. Allow me to paint a portrait with words:

1. They are notoriously irascible. I was here for only a few hours when I saw several yelly street altercations, of which the most entertaining took place between a possibly insane man wearing tight shorty-shorts and a sailors cap (not as village people as it sounds) and a youth on a bike. The youth whipped past on his bike too quickly for the mans liking, and they had words. I moved on to observe from a distance, and it did not seem like things would come to blows. Oh, hot-blooded Magyars, in your collective ethnic heart, I know you'd rather be marauding and pillaging. The world has passed you by, alas.

2. They are terrible drivers. Almost killed twice on my first day here, I was (not sure why the Yodaspeak just there). Cars are careening all over the place, roaring through red lights, screeching and honking and only after much looking will I cross the street, even on a walk signal. There is, overall, a bit of a dog-off-its-leash feeling about Hungary. The infrastructure is not quite good enough to have great social control, so things are just a shade more lawless than one might find in the EC.

3. They are all alcoholics. Well, a lot of them anyway. I went by the public market (about which more later) and was surprised to find that -- at 10am on Monday -- people were already in full boozing mode, chugging beers, doing shots, and generally getting their drink on. The night before, I went into a convenience store to get a bottle of water to notice that the customer in front of me bought three tallboys of beer and a tiny bottle of hard liquor. No doubt an alkie's purchase, but to up the ante, he opened and drank the nip of gin at the counter while he was paying. Definitely upstages the other leading candidate for most egregious Euro-alkie, the guy at a bar in Berlin who was pounding beers with his girlfriend, but when she went to the bathroom, snuck a flask of whiskey out of his pocket and slugged away. Hungarians 1, Germans 0.

4. Their food is vastly underrated. I have only once been to a Hungarian restaurant, and it was really a Hungarian-French restaurant (Moniques, in West Covina of all places, now sadly closed), and I dont remember much about it except wonderful, delicious Langos. Langos is fried dough, in the same sense that caviar is fish eggs. The great food stand at the public market may well have been the food apex of this trip: delicous, filling grub for scandalously cheap prices, all served up in a casual setting that doesnt require giving a damn tip (which is expected in Central Europe, though only about 5-10%). We're talking langos (see above), beef goulash, sausages, and various other heavy but totally delicious treats, all for about $5 American. Heaven, go to hell, for I've already seen ye.

5. They are fat. Or, in any case, if the baths are any indication, the book "Hungarian Women Dont Get Fat" never made it to press for a very good reason. To be fair, the baths are populated largely (no pun intended) by old people (about which see below), so not a representative sample, but still, Geezus H. And would it kill the fat men to not wear a Speedo? there is something spectacularly unselfconscious about being as big as a tank, yet strapping on a tiny piece of latex and then letting your gut hang out so that all the world (seeing you head on) would think youre nude, but again with the Geezus H. To look on the bright side, it made me feel like a regular Chuck Atlas to be around these folks.

6. Their language is incomprehensible. First, its not Indo-European, so there's simply no basis for comparison to anything youve ever heard (unless you know Finnish, or perhaps Korean). There are also four Os, three As and Es, various Is, and an assload of diacritics, which meant that I abandoned any attempt to say anything but "kosonom" (thanks), which I said with some frequency.

Vienna top 5 worst

Dont get me wrong, BR, Vienna is the bomb-diggety, but in the interest of providing the most complete picture possible of my experience I hereby offer the top five things that did not float my proverbial boat.

5. The Danube. First, it is not, as one Strauss would have it, blue. Far from it. Sort of an unhealthy bean green actually. Moreover, its not actually the Danube, but the Donaukanal, a man-made offshoot of the river, that flows north of the city.

4. The guy inhabiting the room next to me in my hotel who celebrates the dawn of each new day with a truly astounding repertory of throat-clearing and loogie-horking. It begins each morning at 6am or so, and is so loud that I fear the noise will echo all the way to the Tirol, threatening Alpine avalanches.

3. The ersatz "Walk of Fame" stars that have been laid down all along the Kartnerstrasse. All the way from the Museum Quarter to Stephansplatz, one runs across these pavement memorials to great composers as well as ones Ive never heard of, in an obvious knockoff of Hollywood. How people thought this would improve vienna baffles me. Perhaps its a nod to California in an attempt to show solidarity with Arnie.

2. These guys (and some gals) dressed up like Mozart, or imperial coachmen (you know what I mean: the wigs, the knee breeches, etc.) who stand around the city center and spend all day stuffing concert brochures into the hands of baffled Japanese and obnoxious Italian tourists (though, thankfully, not into my hands--people either seem to think I am a local or regard me as too scruffy looking to merit even a brochure). Especially on teh hotter days I wanted to go up to these folks and tell them they were made of stern stuff to suffer that kind of discomfort and embarrassment for (what must be) a pittance, but of course I cant say that in German and thought it would only get me a kick in the jimmy anyhow.

1. EVERYTHING IS TOO F-IN EXPENSIVE! The above were small annoyances, and were really quite hard to come up with because I did love Viena, but the one truly problematic thing about the place is that good lord almighty it is an expensive city, orders of magnitude moreso that even Berlin, Dresden, or Amsterdam (none of which are particularly cheap). The first night my search for an internet cafe found me shelling out almost four euros for a quick twenty minute email check). I went looking for a cheapo Imbiss to get a doner kebab or brat and found doners for 8 euros (like 11 bucks), brats for 4 euros (six bucks), and diet cokes for 3 euros (four bucks). At a certain point, I went on a sort of hunger strike and ate only at cheaper places outside the city center, and--I say with less shame that I woudl have thought--even twice patronized McDonalds merely to eat a meal that I thought was not utterly overpriced (plus, who among us does not love a good egg mcmuffin?).

Vienna: city of regret

The one thing I regret most about Vienna:

Not having a damn dessert. I do love a good post-dinner treat now and then, and Vienna is famed for having good ones. Moreover, for the kind of by the book traveler that I am, leaving Vienna without having a tasty pastry is kind of like leaving Italy without having Italian food, or leaving London without having haggis, or something else that is totally disgusting. Except regrettable. Jesus, I really need caffeine.

Point being, I left Vienna without having a damned sacher torte or other famed pastry and I am now flooded with regret. It haunts my days, it robs my nights of sleep, it causes me greater anguish than I have ever heretofore known. Or, at the very least, it kind of bugs me. As the great Viennese writer Freud said, "Tis better to eat too much and feel kind of queasy than to have none at all and feel a great void inside."

Vienna top 5 best

Straight to the music, Brod R:

Top five best things about Vienna (reverse order):

5. Wiener schnitzel. The idea is simple, and really kind of gross: you get a pork or veal cutlet, pound the living shite out of it so it's so flat you cant even see it sideways, then you bread it, then you fry it, and then serve it up with some pommes frites (which, though french for fries, is what they're called in German-speaking countries too). Especially when you include the de rigeur mug of beer, the ways in which this meal is unhealthy simply boggle the mind. The meat (which, because its veal, has unsavory moral connotations as well), the breading, the frying, the carbs, the total lack of anything vegetable (potatoes are tubers, not vegetables, right? some horticulturalist member of the BR is sure to excoriate me for that one). Yet the sheer badness of the meal is what makes it so good. I'd never let myself eat anythng like it in the states, and when you think about it, its really just the Germanic equivalent of chicken fried steak, but oh brother is it good. Schnitzelwirt Schmidt on the Neubaugasse is the place to be for it in Vienna, if youre ever there.

4. The Burgkino. This Ringstrasse movie theater is just another theater (though like many eurotheaters you can get beer there, which I thought of doing just for noveltys sake but didnt because I thought it would put me to sleep), except that it shows The Third Man several times weekly. Id never seen it, and knew the movie only as the one that proved that Orson Welles wasnt a one-hit wonder, but it was pretty damn good: an olde tymey flick with a creamy center of taut intrigue surrounded by a candy shell of love triangle and wrapped in much post-war Viennese atmosphere. The latter is probably what made it memorable. 3d Man is the Vienna movie (though Before Sunrise is a close second), and it draws a decent crowd at the Burgkino, even fifty years after it was made, even at Midnight on a weekday. (And its a great source of historical trivia: did you know that after WWII Vienna, like Berlin, was divided up into four sectors governed by each of the prevailing powers?)

3. Post-imperial grandeur. Many people I know who have visited Vienna feel its not what they expected because the things that used to make the city vital have faded. True that: the Hapsburg Emperor has been replaced by a democratic goverment that is just barely holding off the forces of neoNazism, and the fin de siecle intellectual ferment has given way to a legacy of Falco (you all remember "Rock Me, Amadeus," eh B.R.?) and--no, Falco is pretty much it. So I get the point that Vienna isn't as grand as it used to be. But I think the faded grandeur is just the appeal. Theres a certain tragic spirit to the city because of the powerful sense of what used to be there. The Hofburg Palace, the great squares and monuments to Holy Roman Emperors are all still there, but Austria is--as some wag put it in 1918 after the Treaty of Versailles--"a country no one wanted": just the rump of a now fallen empire, lacking any kind of ethnic history, granted nationhood mainly because Germany couldnt be trusted with that much territory. In Hungary there is a Magyar phrase for the same idea of lost national greatness, something like "patriotic sadness", though I am not sure that works because Austria was never the same kind of nation that many of the once great Central European countries (Poland, Hungary, Bohemia) are. But I go on.

2. Art onslaught. The art in the city is so good, and there is so much of it, that its kind of hard to figure out what to do with it all. Im used to museums in the US where you see a handful of great things and then youre done. You can see the good stuff at the national gallery in DC in thirty minutes, and its a quality collection by american standards. In Vienna, the collections are so dense with great, famous work that you can really only do one a day. I did the Albertina ("from Goya to Picasso" exhibit, plus selections from the Hapsburg collection and a restrospective on Mondrian), then the Leopold Museum (definitive collection on the Vienna fin de siecle expressionists and thereafter), then I surrendered. This much art could kill a man. Beware art!!!

1. Languor. Its hard for me to explain this one. Basically, in Vienna, sitting in a cafe for hours on end, lazing about, reading a book, talking to a friend, and/or having a coffee is an institution, and a marvelously pleasurable experience. Somehow it doesnt work for me in the US. Cafes always seem like nervous places, full of busy people refueling on caffeine, getting some more work done before that meeting, or otherwise working. The BR knows I love doing nothing, but in the US I feel guilty about it, like doing nothing is always vaguely wrong because theres something else I should be doing. By contrast, in Vienna, doing nothing is something people do, and it thus fits nicely into ones day, without the pall of guilt about its being stolen time. Cafe Sperl just off the Ringstrasse is the place for it. Coffee (or tea) is pricey but well worth the expense to laze about in a city that has perfected the art of the laze.

Saturday, June 04, 2005

Itinerariat 5/25 through 6/2

5/25 German class, of course, then lunch at cool bagel place again, where I again read CE book (now in WWII section). Some blogging, plan-making, then wander around city taking pics of key monuments: Under den Linden, Brandenburger Tor, Tiergarten. Visit Reichstag, which is spectacular in setting sun. Evening plan to see Star Wars movie w/J. Beforehand, spend downtime in strange Dunkin Donuts where group of 10 shrieking US college girls conscript me to take pic and upset solitude in which I am approaching end of Corrections with disturbing rapidity. SW movie not bad, as long as you expect a SW movie and not high art. Kino at Sony Center includes so many previews that movie does not begin until 11.40 (scheduled at 11pm) and have to take night bus back at 2am.

5/26 German class: am fatigued from late night and irritable for that reason and also because have to sit next to odiferous classmate. Class also moving along too slowly for my taste. Post-class, eat brat, bock, and currywurst at Pburg imbiss with classmates. Then home for marathon nap. Awaken and go to museums by Schloss Cburg only to find that latter not open late on Thurs as promised. Irritated, salvage some of day by going to Gemaldemuseum (for free) instead. Awful faux-Cheesburger for dinner. No wonder Euros think cheeseburgers are terrible. The ones they have are shite.

5/27 German class: again, room hot, clingy classmate odiferous, subject matter unchallenging. We make fruit salad, strangely, and I eat some to be nice. Frantic day of mailing things home, going to exhibit near Schloss C (great drawings by Klimt, Koshoska, Schiele), and then to store for booze and quickly home to pack a bit then go to J's for schnitzel, which is, despite warnings to contrary, quite delicious. I eat far too much of both Jäger and Wiener schnitzels, as well as german equivalent of Tater Tots (Teuton Tots?). After dinner, go to cool beach bar that--b/c darkness and heat and sand on ground--actually does feel like beach.

5/28 Awaken with scandalously little sleep (2hr?) to catch early train to Dresden. Dresden itself hot, full of Saxon tourists, and must wander city in fatigued stupor for hours after arrival until check-in time at hotel. See major sights, then check in, nap soundly, awake feeling rested and fantastic. Then go on unsuccessful search all over city to find bar showing US-England game. US loses anyway. Starving, cannot find reasonably priced restaurant open late. End up eating Nogger for dinner.

5/29 Awaken early, visit great museum full of medieval ceremonial weaponry (swords, shields, crossbows, suits of armor, etc.), then hop train to Prague, where arrival is smoothed by meeting friendly, Koruny-bearing Canadians. Spend evening getting bearings on city, then having great pizza at Pizzeria Kmotra. Am flummoxed by inability to speak to locals.

5/30 Up early to eat adequate if unspectacular breakfast at hotel-pension-prison Unitas, then go on walking tour of city where I fortuitously meet Canadians from train station. Guide is marvelously informative, and tour lasts twice as long as scheduled, after which I trudge under punishingly hot Czech sun to Retaurant U Mediviku for delicious gulas with knedliky (goulash with dumplings) and divine Budvar. Celebrate by taking well-earned nap. Eventually, more Kmotra for dinner.

5/31 Again, up early to beat crowds to breakfast. Arrive at Prague castle 15min after opening, at which time it is already swamped by tourists, including particularly aggressive Japanese tourists, some of whom have to be dragged bodily away from taking point-blank photos of changing of guard (for castle-guarding guards with guns and all, they command very little respect). Tour Castle, Vitus cathedral, state house (where 2d defenestration of prague took place), and escape to nearby green tea house, where owner gives me evil eye for using bathroom before ordering any tea. Then quick trips to spectacular St Charles Church and Wallenstein Gardens before lunch at Bohemia Bagel (free refills of Diet Coke!), and then funicular railway to Petrin Hill. Panic on rickety staircase to top of Prague Eiffel Tower, but ascent successful enough to warrant reward of beer and klobasa (sausage) once back on terra firma. Descent via back road along deserted stairs--finally feel have sense of solitude in Prague--then dinner at wonderful, if largely deserted Czech cellar restaurant (more gulas, budvar).

6/1 Up even earlier, and take subway south to see Vysehrad castle, which is overrun by czech schoolgroups (this is what these people consider education? no wonder the CR has a GDP smaller than Mississippi´s). return to Old Town Square, reprise of astronomical clock parade of saints, then quick klobasa from stand and trip to City of Prague museum, which is great but most memorable for photo exhibit of final days of Nazi occupation in ´45. Walk through Jewish Qtr on way back, then another meal at U Mediviku (wild boar, garlic, spinach, potatoes), then sweet sweet nap. Dinner: surprisingly good Thai.

6/2 Early morning altercation with loud brits turns out to be blessing b/c it inspires me to catch earlier train to Vienna. Meet friendly Canadians on train south. Check into pension in time to see fantastic Albertina museum, with "from goya to picasso" exhibit as well as deliciously overdone former Hapsburg palace rooms with art from imperial collection. Wander city, taking in post-imperial splendor, then dinner by university and long sit-and-write session at wonderfully languid cafe sperl.

Prague: hot or not?

The aforementioned debate rages, and the broad R knows I'm the man to weigh in. By way of background, Prague was pretty much offlimits to Western tourism until about 1990 when the "Velvet Revolution" freed Czechoslovakia from Commie clutches and permitted westerners to see what they'd been missing. For a magical few years, Prague was an undiscovered gem, still a bit unknown as a tourist destination, flowing with cheap beer, and dotted with spectacular medieval, baroque, and romantic art and architecture (as opposed to many other Central European cities that had been scraped flat by the roller of wars, wars, wars--get the reference and I'll buy you a Coke!).

Cue forward a few years, and undiscovered Prague had become, well, discovered, especially by student tourists, who were drawn by the promise of cheap beer and ... no, pretty much that was it. The cheap beer. By 1996, the Let's Go researcher who was sent to Prague--himself a Pole who spoke more Slavic tongues than existed and had seen Prague in its pre-tourist days--wrote such unmentionable things about the city that his editors had to pretty much censor them in their entirety. For every statue on Charles Bridge, there were ten drunken US or British tourists puking of the side of said bridge, he reported. The Golden City, it seemed, had become tarnished.

That's not to say that people have gotten the pic and stopped going to Prague. Quite the contrary; the tourists still flock there in droves, and the city is probably the number one tourist destination outside Germany in Mitteleuropa. Despite (or perhaps precisely because of) this, various confidantes warn DF against going. Thus the scene is set for DF and his glorious four-day jaunt through the place, at the end of which he will opine on the city's hotness (or not-ness).

The verdict, for those of you who I know lack the attention span to read any further, is that Prague, despite all, is hot. Maybe not hot-as-the-sun hot, maybe not model-in-a-bikini hot, but damned hot. To say that it is the most beautiful city I've ever seen would be untrue, but only because there have been so many, and they are all beautiful in different and incomparable ways. Still, I can't recall ever being in a place that had as many wow! moments as Prague. The biggies did not disappoint: castle, clock, old town square, jewish quarter, charles bridge, with the latter being an obvious but undeniable fave. What got me, though, is that Prague is beautiful in a way that I´ve never before seen (and suspect I never again will).

Also worth noting were the less obvious but still great points: the Wallenstein Gardens (classical gardens populated by real Czech people, no tourists (well, none but me), and a strange albino peacock that makes a sound like a castrati being stabbed to death); the Prague "Eiffel Tower" on petrin hill (several hundred vertiginous feet high, and hell yes I freaked out as I ascended the rickety, exposed staircase to the top in strong winds, but I ascended nonetheless); and the not too far but relatively unpopulated ruins of the Vysehrad castle south of the city.

Was the beer cheap? You betcha. Moreover, it was so. damn. good. And, you get a lot of it: I was paying on the order of 26 Korunys (crowns, or about a buck ten in US dollars) per delicious half-liter of Budvar. (Here in Vienna that much cash could get you a thimbleful of booze at a dive bar way outside the city center if you go during happy hour, but more about that later.) But moreover, the food was great. To call Czech food "rich" is an understatement--I had a gulas so dark light could not escape its gravitational field--but wonderfully warm and, again, like little else I´ve ever eaten. And it´s also cheap. Prague is also cosmopolitan enough that there is good ethnic food of the non-local variety (I had a kickass pizza and some excellent Thai food).

To be fair, demerits for the tourist hordes must be assessed. Just as I have never seen anything like Prague, I have never seen anything like the throngs of auslanders that populated Prague during my visit. It was like Disneyland in mid-summer on a weekend day. There were times when I could not find my way out of the countless interlocking tour groups that packed the old town square (or the castle, or the bridge). I saw tour groups from countries that I didn´t know had tourists (e.g., Cyprus). But while annoying, I was able to get away from the groups as well (one of the many pleasures of independent travel), by going to authentic, out of the way Czech restaurants, or walking back from Petrin hill along an obscure back route.

Still, though, Prague ruled. I´d recommend it to anyone (though try to pick a non-peak time), and if you go, I can tell you about some great restaurants and a not-so-great pension-hotel (the "Unitas," where I stayed, is a converted prison and feels about as homey as this would suggest, and was also populated by drunken, irascible Brits).

P.S. Word to the wise: the word on the street is that Riga (Latvia) is the new Prague. You heard it here first.

Monday, May 30, 2005

Czech bums and ethnic confusion

To the not-insignificant percentage of the broad readership that is homeless and/or indigent, I've got to tell you: you've got a lot to learn from Czech bums. The whole American schtick of standing on a corner, looking ragged, an asking for money is way outdated and not at all the most effective way to work people for spare change. In the C.R., the bums are way ahead of you. They don't say a word, but rather kneel on the ground with their heads pitched forward on the ground so they're not even looking at you, and they've got a hat or cup sitting on the pavement in front of them to collect the spare change--which is copiously forthcoming. I turn into Ayn Rand when I see homeless people begging for change, but this move was the most pathos-inducing bum schtick I've seen, and it almost made me give up a Koruny or two (almost).

Also, if any members of the B.R. are ethnographers, perhaps they can explain to me why some significant proportion of the Czech population doesn't have anything like a traditional Slavic look at all, but are rather dusky-skinned with straight, pitch-black hair, more the kind of look you'd expect to see in southern than central Europe. The Liverpool footballer and recent European Championship winner Milan Baros is an example.

Czech: I got nothin'

You know me, broad readership--I like learning the languages. Spanish I've got down pretty well, I know some French, can read the basics in Dutch, am coming along nicely in German, and I took some Latin a while back. But when it comes to Czech, I got nothin'. Not a phrase, nary a word, and next to no instinct for how anything should sound so that even the simplest statements (e.g., someone telling me the price of a bottle of water) are a complete mystery.

That said, this has not actually posed much of a barrier. Lots of people here speak English (thank God it's the universal language), and with gesturing and pointing at menus and liberal use of prosim (please) and dekuji (thank you), I've been able to eat and do pretty much what I want.

Another good thing about my utter linguistic cluelessness is that it's made me comparatively more confident about my abilities in languages that I do know to an extent. Compared to Czech, I'm perfectly conversant in German (as long as the conversation turns at some point to voltage converters and plug adapters), I'm the equivalent of a damned native speaker of Spanish, and with English, the greatest linguistic genius of our time. It does make me look forward to Austria, though, as I'll be able to re-practice the Deutsch with newfound boldness (timidity or at least a desire not to look like a total jackass having hamstrung me in past attempts to communicate in the local tongue when abroad).

Another lesson of being in the C.R. is that at least at this point I've no desire to get into the linguistic--and in many cases, orthographic--mess that is the family of Slavic languages. I'm going to keep the Spanish sharp, develop the German, maybe brush up on French or Dutch if I'm in the mood, but the language buck stops there. (With the possible exception of Serbo-Croatian (or B.C.S. as it's now polite to say, for Bosnian-Croatian-Serbian) if I do a trip to the Dalmatian coast sometime). Na shledanou for now, Broad R.

Maticka Praha

...is, I have read, Czech for "little mother Prague," and is the affectionate nickname for the city in which I currently find myself among its locals. In an effort to disclose all to the devoted B.R., have no way to confirm or deny this, as I have had a hard time locating a local among the tourist hordes, and even if I could find one, I suspect it would be useless because I don't speak the slightest scrap of this western Slavic tongue.

The trip in from Dresden yesterday was so nice I was kind of disappointed to arrive. There is something about train travel in Europe I find infinitely comforting: you get to see the country, which is usually gorgeous (not sure why European train trax are so frequently built through picturesque areas, but most of them are--the Dresden-Prague line goes through a stretch of Central European countryside along the Elbe River), and (this being my fave part) you don't have to do anything. You just get to sit there and relax. This stands in contrast to the rest of my time, which is typically spent trying to see and do as much as possible, and while great is often fairly intense as well.

Arrival posed a series of challenges, not least of which was that the train dropped us off at Praha Holesovice station, not the more central station that appears on all maps and from which all accommodations give directions. Fortunately, however, I teamed up with a pair of friendly Canadians who were similarly confused, and figured out the way to town (they also spotted me enough Koruny for a subway ticket when the exasperated lady at the station refused to change my 1000Kr note--more evidence of post-communist laziness).

Thus despite knowing no Czech and armed with only a copy of the map from my trusty Lonely Planet (no I am not using Let's Go, about which I wish to say no more in this public space), I managed to find my prison/hotel (about which more later) and took the requisite nap before setting out to navigate the Golden City in the company of tens of thousands of tourists from around the world, as well as the occasional Czech person trying to sell T-shirts with a picture of the word "Praha" emblazoned on a big cannabis leaf.