I think it's really amazing how quickly you begin to appreciate the small, simple things when traveling abroad alone. A friend. Someone to talk to. The smallest assurance of being safe. Signs that have the English translation in itallics to the side/bottom of their foreign counterparts. I always understood that being gracious and open-minded was an important part of traveling abroad; an observation I made from my various travels with professors overseas. I knew that open-mindedness was important to help curb the minor (not sure that is the adjective I would use now) interruptions in travel plans. I also understood that being gracious to your hosts or those who help you on your journey is important; not only as a good human being, but to combat the stigma that Americans tourists are loud, rude, and arrogant people. I would say that my appreciation for precision in travel (on time, proper planing realized) has evolved into an appreciation for heading the right way at a time that somewhat resembles my original itinerary. As I'd soon find out, (aside from coasters made from cork with funny midwestern jokes printed on them [Raygun] and €20) being a gracious guest is sometimes the only way we can truly show our appreciation for someone's hospitality.
[Door Slides Open]
And with that, the sanctity of our quiet little coach room had disappeared. A middle-aged woman, probably in her fifties, dressed in a floral skirt, made her way into the cabin. Two men followed; one in athletic shirt, the other holding a newspaper. Thomas, still a little sleepy, struggled to put his green dufflebag away to make room for the new passengers. The magazines came off of the seat bottoms and we were forced to sit upright... unlike the majority of the journey which we spent asking the question, "is there any way possible to make this thing ACTUALLY comfortable?". Seriously; you'd think with an entire cabin to the two of us, both with our own row of 3 seats, we could find a way to make it enjoyable. Lay across the seats. Sit low with your feet outstretched to the other side of the cabin. Curl up in a ball on the seats. Nope. Thomas, if you're reading this, and you find a way to make that train comfortable enough for a night's rest, I expect a comment.
It wasn't long before the train stopped again. This time though, it was Wien (Vienna). And like that, Thomas was already halfway off the train. Remember, these train stops were for about 60 seconds or less; so I knew that the train would leave even if I was still in the coach. Scrambling to get things collected (and most importantly NOT forget anything), I must have hit people in the train car with my 3 bags at least once or twice. Yes, my pack did get stuck in the doorway trying to squeeze through incoming passengers. Yes, it was embarrassing. Yes, I'm sure I did hit someone with the bag. BUT, I made it off the train; mainly thanks to Thomas who made sure to hold the door open for me.
It was a little after 6 AM; but the city was already awake. Lots of people moving around in the subway. A lot of people on their early morning commute. We had to go down some stairs, underneath the platforms and the road, to cross underneath a wall that separated the station from the public. Then back up the stairs, and crossing the road again, we found our way to a group of taxi drivers. There were a variety of cars; a Prius, a Mercedes, a minivan, some smaller european car brands that I didn't necessarily recognize right away, and then something that got me very excited... a Dacia.
Now, you probably know that I'm a huge fan of the former version of BBC's "Top Gear", hosted by Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond, and James May. Their chemistry on screen is unlike anything I've ever seen; sort of a boy's dream to be testing the world's best cars, in the best locations, with your best friends. This clip I found on Youtube is from one of my favorite episodes; the guys take 3 fantastic convertibles to Romania in search of the world's greatest driving road (seriously? Romania? World's best road? Yea). Now, if you've ever seen the show, you'll understand that James May is the most refined of the three; he's got a passion for reliability and practicality and appreciates things that simply work with no flamboyance at all. Not one for speed or show, Captain Slow is the exactly the kind of guy a father would seek out for advice when buying a used car for his 16 year old daughter. So it makes sense that he's driving the black Lamborghini (easily the most flamboyant and impractical one of the three)....
Anyway, onto the Dacia. This little sub plot develops on their trip about a Dacia Sandero... the producers and the guys make it out to be this mysteriously awesome and insanely powerful practical family small car... (which of course is the humor because half of the audience knows it's an under powered cheap car, and the other half doesn't have a clue and actually believes it). So, here they are driving around in the world's greatest convertibles (of the time) and they're all swooning over this Dacia. Here's the clip.
So of course, when I realize that Thomas and I have just gotten into the back of a Dacia, I was a tad bit excited. And I must say, not only was it roomy and comfortable, but it was SO FAST. Darting in and out of traffic, gripping the corners of roundabouts like a pro; it was incredible. The skyline of the city was a blur. I was so thrilled that I had to put a tweet out to Mr. James May.
We made our way through the maze of small alleyways and cars parked on the sidewalks. The driver pulled up to a white apartment building on the corner. The car stopped. Thomas and I got out of the car and grabbed our bags. He paid the driver and walked up to the keypad on the door.
[Door Buzzes Open]
The dark entryway evaporated into the morning sunlight, pouring in from windows along a set of stairs on the opposite side of the corridor. We made our way up to the first floor. The stairwell wrapped itself around an open-air elevator that was made of iron which, I was guessing, had been there for quite sometime. The ceilings were tall, somewhere between 12 and 14 feet. We turned right down the hall and stopped at the first door on our left.
“Now remember, we do have some other guests staying here, so you’ll need to be quiet. Just set your things down in the entryway and I’ll show you to the living room”
The door opened up to a cozy little entry way. I sat down to take my shoes off and put my bags on the ground. A door across the hallway opened up and Alex, his girlfriend, walked out to greet us. I could tell she had just woken up, but despite her sleepiness, she managed to give me a warm welcome to their flat in her best 6:00 in the morning English. Down the hallway was their modern kitchen, which was separated from the living room by an immense pair of double doors. I opened the doors to a yellow living room complete with large windows, lace curtains, and a chandelier. The (at least) 14 foot ceilings really made this feel like the Viennese apartments I had imagined during discussions in my Music History II course with Dr. Johnson.
I sat down on the futon/bed and let out a sigh of relief. After all of the problems from yesterday, I had made it. I was in the correct city. I was safe. I was on schedule to make my next train. And, most importantly, I had met some very kind and hospitable people. I plugged my iPhone in and, despite the construction work on the building right outside my window, I fell into a fantastic sleep.
“Did you still want to leave with me when I go to work? It’s going on 11:30 and I’ll be leaving soon”
I sprang up from my bed and saw Thomas had poked his head into the living room. Earlier that morning, we had discussed how I was going to get to the train station from their place. We had agreed that I would leave with him and he would point me in the right direction on his way to work.
“Oh yea, let me just jump in the shower really quick”
I sprang out of bed and jumped into the shower. The room was the smallest functional bathroom I have ever seen, but it worked quite nicely. The shower was on the left wall, the toilet was on the right, and the sink in the middle. With the door closed, there was just enough room for me to stand in the middle and decide which direction I wanted to go. By the time that I had gotten out, Thomas and Alex had come up with a better plan.
“I’m going to leave for work, but Alex would like to make you breakfast. Then you can do a little sightseeing and be on your way.”
She smiled and invited me into the kitchen. Before Thomas left, I grabbed one of the Raygun coasters from my bag. After trying to decide which joke they might actually understand, I handed it to them. It was the coaster with the map of the U.S. with Iowa filled in and said “IOWA: Wave next time you fly over!”. I did my best to explain the joke (unsure if people actually know or care about the intricacy of state geography in the US) and said it was the least I could do for all of their kindness and hospitality. We said goodbye and I sat down at the table.
“Well, what would you like to eat? I’ve got cereal or some bread” she said.
“That’s fine with me!” I replied.
[Pours cereal and starts to slice bread]
She continued. “I’ve also got yogurt, cheese, meats, and some fresh fruit. How about a banana? What about a coffee?”
Within 5 minutes she had offered me everything in the kitchen. The most delicious thing she made for breakfast was a smoothie made with carrots, ginger, peaches, and I think bananas? I’ll have to get the recipe from her. Anyway, along with breakfast came delightful conversations about my trip, what had brought me to Wien, what was happening in Budapest, and our lives in general. She pulled out a map and we discussed things to do and see in Wien. She even gave me the WiFi code so I could get online and let everyone know I was safe with an Instagram post.
Alex and I had devised a plan for my brief afternoon of sightseeing. I would walk from their house to Stephansplatz, the center of the city. This was the permanent home of Stephansdom, one of the world’s tallest cathedrals. To be honest, I was a little hesitant to go out alone - especially when leaving all of my things here. She insisted it wouldn’t be enjoyable to carry all of those things and that it would be much easier if I just came back after my adventure to pick them up. Yes, this seemed like the easy choice, but for some reason I had a reservation. Maybe it was trying to use the door code to ring back in. Maybe it was the anxiety of separating from my belongings? Regardless, it was going on 13:30, so I needed to go. With that weird lump in my throat and upper chest (mix of excitement and anxiety), I grabbed my camera and ran out the door.
It was a fantastic day. The sun was shining and there was a good breeze, but it wasn’t hot. After crossing the river, I recalled Alex’s instructions.
“Cross the river, then turn left. Follow the river all the way until you come to a McDonald’s, then turn right. This will take you all the way to Stephansplatz”
There were trams running along some sections of the river, along with cobblestone sidewalks underneath a canopy of trees. There were plenty of outdoor restaurants along the way. Intersections were busy with cars, buses, and people moving around and yet, the city was incredibly quiet. You’d think that with 1.7 million people there would be plenty of noise pollution… but it was quite a peaceful and leisurely walk.
In the distance, shining as a beacon of the plague of invasive western culture in the world, stood the glorious golden arches. It was on the corner of Schwedenplatz (the road I had been following) and Rotenturmstrabe, which led directly to Stephansplatz. No sooner had I turned the corner and the quiet city of Wien turned into a noisy, crowded whirlpool of tourists, selfie sticks, and neon signs. There were bargain stores selling clothes and souvenirs. Overpriced restaurants with signs outside advertising their lunch specials in English were on every corner. I was a small fish following the current upstream. Thankfully, I had no interest in overpriced “Italian” gelato or shot glasses with a printed picture of the Stephansdom. I wanted to see the real thing. So I just kept swimming.
After about half a mile of walking, the canyons of buildings on either side of me finally opened up. The noise of the tourists dissipated into the sounds of horse hooves striking cobblestones. Standing firm in the center of the square was Stephansdom.
Someone once said, “Once you’ve been in a European Cathedral, you’ve been in all of them”. And yes, I agree, to a point. They are all large with fantastic architecture and incredible artwork. They may have different styles or unique qualities, but they all have one intrinsic theme - they are all a testament to the achievement of humans and their inspiration from the word of God. So walking inside, it looked like any other cathedral… massive ceilings, beautiful stained-glass windows, and an ornate altar. What was different about Stephansdom though was the roof mosaic on the outside and the fact that you could climb to the top and walk around the roof. I however, had something else I wanted to see.
It was only about a block or two away from the city center. I followed my little phone map east out of the square and into the small cobblestone alleyways. I turned the corner to see a familiar silhouette sticking out from the buildings. Maybe you can recognize the young composer?
It was Mozart! One of his many residences during his life, this is the only one that remains intact after two devastating world wars. According to their website, Mozart and his family lived here from 1784 to 1787, during which time he wrote the world-famous opera “The Marriage of Figaro” and three of the six Haydn Quartets. Having such a long history with Mozart as a horn player, you could imagine I was a bit excited.
The visit was short though. I stepped into the entryway and saw that the next tour had already started. Before I thought of asking if I could walk through the exhibit at my own pace, I checked my clock. 14:30. By the time I got back to the flat, it would be 15:00, which gave me a little over an hour to get to the station and board my train. Rather than taking the risk of missing this train too, I decided it was best if I headed back. I knew I would return to Wien soon, and would be sure to go through next time.
When I got back to the apartment building, I called Alex on the keypad and she buzzed me in. She was waiting at the top of the stairs and eager to hear about my adventure to Stephansplatz. After a quick glass of water, she handed me the instructions on how to ride the subway (here they call it the metro) to Wien Hauptbahnhof station. Now I’m sure that people who are from larger cities could easily navigate a subway system - however for this kid from Iowa, this was just another new experience. Not that I had never been on a subway before, but changing stations and trains where the stops are difficult to pronounce, that’s a little hard. Luckily, her instructions were very clear.
I thanked Alex profusely for all of her kindness and patience in explaining things to me. She really provided a boost of confidence to help me get out there and explore, with the added security that if I got lost or had a problem, she (and Thomas) would be there to help. It’s quite an intense feeling; when you are all alone in a foreign country, but can find a sense of trust in a complete stranger when you’ve known them for less than 12 hours. Surprisingly, there still are good people in the world. I promised that I would be back and see them again when I visited Wien. With a smile and a wave, I grabbed my three bags and strutted out the door.
I had seen the subway station earlier on my walk to Stephansplatz; it was on the opposite side of the river. I rode the escalators down, looking for some sort of ticket booth. I was eager to find it - Alex and I had made change from some of my euros to make sure that I wouldn’t have a problem getting purchasing a ticket. I looked and looked, but there wasn’t one anywhere. So, I just followed the crowds to the correct platform and got on.
It wasn’t long before the train arrived. Just a few stops later and I found myself changing trains and climbing to the surface again. I was really starting to feel good at this point. I had taken the subway, changed trains successfully, and was close to the station. It’s that building excitement in your chest that makes you want to yell “Bravo!” at the end of a concert, or just throw your arms up in some attempt to release the energy through all of your appendages. At the top of the subway were signs for “Hauptbahnof”, so I knew I was close.
I had seen pictures of this place before, but it’s so much more impressive in person. As I came to the end of the city block, it began to reveal itself from behind the edge of the stone building. Gleaming in the sun, it was made of glass and stainless steel. This station wasn’t an old, scarred, stone structure that told stories of its’ strength and rigidity by the bullet holes in its’ facade from past wars. This was a brand new, modern, sleek structure that was one of the most welcome things I had seen on my travels. I was here. I was where I was supposed to be. Things were going right. I was so excited, that I knew I had to take a selfie.
(still working on my selfie skills)
It was as shiny on the inside as it was on the outside. Bright blue departure and arrival signs reflected off of the polished marble floors along with the pastel colored signs of all of the stores that lined the main hall. There were escalators everywhere..going up and going down. People were constantly moving in and out of the station, but because the platforms were above us, they were dispersed evenly between 3 main entry/exit points. I spotted a sign for tickets.
“Welcome to ÖBB Travel Portal. To begin, please select your preferred language”
“Please Enter Reference Code”
[Quickly pulls out manilla folder marked “Wien -> Budapest” from the back of the camera bag, opens it up to the “THIS IS NOT A VALID TICKET” printoff]
“Your tickets are now printing. Thank you for choosing ÖBB and have a pleasant journey”
I was stunned that it actually worked. No error messages. No "this train is full" messages. No "you can't redeem this ticket here" messages. IT WORKED!! The freshly printed tickets popped out at the bottom of the machine. It’s kind of that feeling when you purchase a snickers bar from the vending machine in the GBPAC (performing arts building where I went to school) and, you know it’s supposed to fall because you paid $1.25, but you intently watch the metal ring and hold your breath that it doesn’t stop moving before the candy bar actually falls. Holding the tickets in my hand was like that first bite of the Snickers bar… sweet victory.
I was ecstatic to be honest. FINALLY. All of the worrying and planning I spent at home in the states, trying to get the correct trains going to the correct places that lined up with the cheapest flight to the cheapest destination felt worth it. My plans were turning out right. Just when I thought things couldn’t get any better, I realized something when I looked at the tickets.
See that number 1 under the “Klasse” box? Yea. I was riding FIRST CLASS. I had planned it that way - these Railjet trains looked fantastic and I wanted to treat myself, but it wasn’t really hitting me until now. I looked up at the departures board.
“RJ Budapest Keleti, Platform 12”
The escalators opened up into the above ground platforms that were actually built on top of the station. There must have been 6 or 8 trains at the platforms, but because they were all separeted by various escalators, it wasn’t too crowded at all. Because the train did have assigned seating, I knew I needed to find the platform and railcar assignment board. I was on car 26.
In true drum corps fashion, my hurry up and wait technique was perfect (thanks to proper training from Jamie, my section leader in the Colts). I was on the platform almost 20 minutes early. So, I took this opportunity to drop all of my belongings on the ground and use another favorite drum corps technique, sitting whenever I felt like it. I used to do this in Wal-Marts across the country. When someone was shopping too long, or the 2 cashiers at 1:00 AM had to process 150 customers by themselves, I would just sit down on the floor and wait. The best was when a group of us would sit down in a car stall at Sonic. It wasn’t uncommon for ALL of Sonic’s drive in parking spots to be completely filled with hungry kids when the drum corps rolled into town. There was no need to stand. We stand all day in the sun. The concrete was comfy!
Two trains rolled in and out of the station by the time the clock struck 16:12. I was waiting in section A which would be at the back of the train for FIRST CLASS passengers like me. Then, right on schedule, lights appeared on the tracks for platform 12.
It looked as good as it did in the pictures online. It even matched the station - sleek, shiny, modern. Graphics on the windows. Modern colors. Like the station, the train was equally as impressive as inside. The cabin was spacious with plenty of head and legroom. I had booked a single seat with a table - according to the ticket this would be seat 26. I placed my camping bag on the luggage rack in the middle of the train, while keeping my camera and laptop with me.
The seats were leather with the C shaped headrest, allowing someone to rest their head on the side of the seat if they wanted to take a nap. They also had side supports and a soft, red cloth with “ÖBB” stitched in white, draped over the top of the seat. It must have been less than 4 minutes before the train slid out of the station and we were on our way. The cabin was about half full; however I overheard one of the conductors mention that the train would be nearly full after entering Hungary.
Screens lined the hallway providing a real time map, station list, and even potential connecting trains that could be in danger at upcoming stations if we ran behind schedule - but we didn’t. There was a menu at my table. Apparently, in first class they even provide each passenger with in-seat food and beverage service, along with complimentary snacks. So, aside from my Mediterranean seasoned snack crackers, I decided to order a crispy chicken salad with a bottle of still water. While I waited, I logged on to ÖBB’s own private Wifi network that is available aboard ALL ÖBB trains within Austria. I checked Snapchat, emails, and even my Facebook. The crispy chicken salad arrived on a proper white plate with actual silverware and a cloth napkin. The bottle of water had its' own glass. The chicken tasted as good as it looked and the water was cold and refreshing. The ride from the train was smooth, quiet, and fast. This was shaping up to be way more comfortable than most airplanes.
My favorite part, however, was watching the scenery go by. Ask my dad and he will tell you that, when we make the pilgrimage to Montana each winter, I spend the majority of my time staring out the window. Not because anything is particularly interesting - just because there is something relaxing about watching the world fly by from behind a pane of glass. Outside the train, heading east from Wien, there were plenty of hills, small patches of trees, and farms. Farms for grain, sunflowers, and even wind. Each time we pulled into a station, I was totally impressed by the uniformity of the ÖBB stations. While most were small platforms, they all had the same design: clear panes of glass, stainless steel railings and fixtures, and uniform grey stones for the platform. They all seemed new and very well maintained.
And then, all of that changed. The next station didn’t have stainless steel or glass. The stones were bricks of various, faded colors. There was tall, yellow grass on the opposite side of a rusty fence. A large, two-tone, concrete structure dominated the view outside my window...maybe an old water tower of some sort that had been converted to a observation tower? This place wasn’t maintained at all like the previous stations. In fact, the only sign of people living nearby were the small, purple and red flowers clinging to life in the planter that was chipped and falling apart. It all changed so drastically, like in the blink of an eye, or the crossing of a….
[Looks up at the screen in the middle of the car]
I was here. This was Hungary.