Sunday, July 27, 2008

Croatia, Austria, and The Czech Republic

Leaving Bosnia and Herzegovina it became clear that the distinctively rustic part of our travels were coming to an end. Since June 16 we had been traveling in poor countries, Greece being the most wealthy among them. Bosnia and Herzegovina appeared to be the poorest of them all, made that way by a recent history of brutal civil war. But now, from the capital city of the Republic Serbska, Banja Luca, we were heading towards the countries of the EU, with all of its modern rules and regulations, wealth and interconnectedness.

We were joined on our journey by a 21 year-old Russian Ph.D student, who had been living in Croatia studying Balkans politics and was soon leaving for New York to finish her schooling. From the description it might appear that she was a very interesting acquaintance, but she turned out to have a very abrasive personality. Even though I could tell from the beginning that she was hard to be around, I could do little as she slowly asserted control over mine and Al's travel plans from the moment we got off the bus in Zagreb, pulling us onto buses with the excuse of trying to help us find a hostel. I think part of the reason she took such an interest in us was because we told her we had been on Birthright to Israel. She, as it turned out, was Jewish as well. She called me 'her Jewish friend.'

She was not easy-going, nor did she have a sense of humor, and her presence began to ratchet up the stress. She was able, however, to find the hostel she was staying at, and the very friendly hostel attendant, thinking that we were all together in a group, tried to find us a space in the hostel although it was almost full. She offered Al and I a single bed to share for a discount, and we took it. The 'Russian reach around,' as we not-so-affectionately began to call our new co-traveller, was hungry, and so, not wanting to spend any more money or time than was needed with her, we steered her into going to McDonald's. Al was especially excited by the menu options, so much so that he went back for seconds on a milk-shake. This was to be the first of a number of stops at McDonald's that Al and I would make in the course of our travels in the more prosperous, and Americanized, EU Europe (Al loved the ice cream coffee drinks).

That night we managed to break free from the Russian and went out for drinks at an Irish bar with the hostel attendant, her boyfriend (the young part-owner of the hostel), their friend, and three English girls from the hostel. Over a Guinness the hostel attendant's boyfriend told us of how he got into the hostel business: He was trying to learn Japanese, and found out about a website that connects Japanese speakers with Croatian speakers so that they can teach each other their respective languages. He happened to get in contact with a Japanese man who was looking to start a hostel in Zagreb and wanted a Croatian to be his business partner. We were all happy to find out the history of our humble hostel.

The next day we toured around Zagreb a bit, planning our day out so that we could catch the overnight bus to Vienna at 11pm. We visited an old-masters art museum, rushing through most of it because we arrived right before closing time (it's not a good idea to plan much of anything in Europe on Sunday). We strolled down streets, observing the obviously Austrian inspired architecture in all of its flamboyant Baroqueness (it was nothing compared to Vienna though).

After a fulfilling pasta meal where we managed to spend almost all of our remaining Croatian kuna, we went back to our hostel, retrieved our bags, and headed to the bus depot. Just to make sure that we didn't leave Croatia with a single kuna needing usurious exchange, I suggested that we buy a snack for the bus ride. Unfortunately, we did not count on being charged for each piece of luggage on top of the ticket price, a practice common in the poorer Balkan regions but one which we thought we had left behind. So at the last minute I had to find an ATM, get charged a $5 transaction fee (a tariff that has added a considerable expense to our trip after months of travel) for money I was not going to be able to use, and pay the disgruntled bus driver.

But no matter: we were on our way, late at night, on a crowded little bus. Al easily dosed off on his neck pillow, but I was stuck sitting next to a beer drinking, cell phone talking Croatian, and wasn't able to sleep. When I finally managed to get a bit of sleep we arrived at the Slovenian EU border and were forced to debark at the checkpoint with a storm thundering around us. The process of passport checking took quite a while, but it was not without its entertainment: an old, apparently senile woman in front of me, tired of waiting in line, decided it best to just walk straight across the border. So after a hesitant start she picked up pace, and soon was waddling into Slovenia. A boarder guard and our bus driver chased her down, put her at the front of the line, and then once her passport was oked, walk her, legally this time, into Slovenia. Once there though, she tired of waiting for the others still on the other side, so she started back across the border, into Croatia, eliciting the same response from the border guard and bus driver.

At six in the morning we arrived in Vienna, lacking a map or any information on how to reach our Viennese host, Judith, because we weren't able to get her response email in time. We got on a U-Bahn and headed to the center of town. After a light nap under the awning of some impressive neo-classical building (still not sure what function the place had in imperial times) we went to a ritzy coffee shop where we ordered a cappuccino and small croissant, all coming to around 7 euro per person. At last - after spending a euro and a half on fifteen minutes of Internet - we found directions to Judith's house and headed her way.

Judith lived in what seemed to be a more working class, culturally diverse neighborhood. It was very nice, and offered easy access to very cheap Turkish food restaurants featuring the ubiquitous 'Donar Kebab'. Her apartment was also very close to light rail going towards a hub U-bahn station, but was also walking distance from many of the interesting cultural treats of Vienna.

Our stay with Judith turned out to be more than we could have hoped for. She was extremely hospitable, giving Al and I her bed - for which we repaid her in delicious fried egg breakfasts most mornings and a carbarnara pasta dinner - and when she was not busy with school work or preparing for her imminent departure to China for a year long study abroad program, she took us around the city, to swanky bars, coffee shops (where we tried a variety of famous Viennese pastries and deserts), an outdoor concert, a short film festival, a pay-what-you-like Indian restaurant, and a modern-art gallery. She introduced us to friends, and even was so kind as to talk politics with me, telling me about the recent electoral history of her country, the different parties, and the sometimes provincial and racist recalcitrance of her fellow Austrians.

Our stay in Vienna, for me, was marked by a lot of viewing and discussion of art. This, of course, is Al's forte, and he had a great time reflecting on a central and eastern European art history class he took a few years back, educating me on the importance of Egon Schiele and Gustav Klimpt - the few names that I remember. We also, coincidentally, ran into Al's friend Sean at the Secessionist's (a early 20th century Viennese art movement) art nuevo HQ, who we knew was going to be in Vienna but was a surprise to run into nonetheless. We followed him and his art class into a couple galleries, but Judith and I were fatigued by all the avant garde art we had seen that day (though John Currin's hilarious paintings did offer a respite from art theory) and so headed back home.

After a long week exploring Vienna we sadly packed our bags and headed to the edge of town, hoping to hitch a ride to Prague. The problem was that the Austrian drivers had other plans. Al and I sat on the corner of the autobahn - or whatever the Austrians call it - for around two and a half hours before we decided it was hopeless and headed first for the train station, but then, finding trains too expensive, for the bus station, where the 21 euro ticket was more to our liking.

We arrived in Prague late that night, and after much confusion as to the location of our hostel, got onto a subway train and soon arrived at our somewhat rundown, but perfectly decent hostel on the outskirts of town. It turned out that our hostel wasn't particularly fun - everyone kind of kept to themselves - although I did have quite a surprise when I walked into our room the first night to find two guys from the Canary Islands whom I had share a hostel room with before when my friend Molly and I visited London a year and a half ago.

Like our hostel though, Prague too was less interesting than other places we had been on our journey through Europe. It wasn't that it wasn't beautiful - it was - and it wasn't that it didn't have any interesting things to offer - it does- it was, I think, that Al and I were not in the mood to be tourists, and in Prague, there is no way one can not be a tourist. The city is swarming with people from all around the world, and while this may, in certain places, imbue a certain cosmopolitanism, in Prague, where the multiculturalism is due mostly to holiday makers, the crowds give the city a Disney Land feel (Disney World might be more accurate).

It wasn't that I actively disliked Prague; I didn't. In fact we did quite a few cool things. While the Franz Kafka museum was underwhelming, walking through Malá Strana below the Prague castle was very enjoyable. Along these same lines, seeing Pink Floyed's The Wall might have been mainly an opportunity to remember how incredible idiotic that film was, but seeing it at an open air theatre on an Island in the Vltava River as it sporadically rained was quite enjoyable (although not enjoyable enough to keep us there through the whole movie). We also met up with Sean again, who had been living there for a month and more, had some great beer at an artisan beer brewery, and had lots of reading time. So it wasn't bad; it just wasn't great, wasn't as interesting and authentic as the other places we had visited up to that point.

So after four days we left Prague on a mid-afternoon bus, heading to our final European destination: Berlin.

From Berlin,

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