After some inner debate, I decided to take a day trip from Vienna into Bratislava, Slovakia. It would be my first time behind the old “iron curtain,” and I was excited. I took a mid-day train out of Vienna and as we went along I decided to try to snap a few photos out the train window. It’s basically impossible to shoot a decent photograph through a train window because of the interior reflections, but this train had upper windows that slid down. Since there was no one near me who would be bothered by it, I slid the window down and began gawking out and snapped a couple of shots.
A short time later, an old man came up to me and said something in German. I politely told him (in German) that I didn’t speak German, did he know English? And he said “will the window be down for all time?” I know it was a bit cool outside, but he was easily six or seven rows up, so I was more than a little tempted to say, well, crankyface, I’m sure someday, someone will close it, but instead I politely told him I was just going to get a few photos here and there but would close it between shots. He seemed satisfied with that and returned to his seat.
Other than a ticket and passport check and some interesting scenery along the way, the train ride was shorter than I expected (about three and a half hours) and relatively uneventful. There was little question when we crossed the border because (beyond the passport checks) the world beside the tracks looked much different. The style of living for these people was still very hard – the fall of communism and the arrival of open markets has changed the landscape out here very little.
We arrived in Bratislava and the sunny blue sky was being rapidly overtaken by gray clouds. No sooner had I walked into the station when it began to rain. As I prefer to walk and explore, I hoped that it was a quick storm, or else I would lose much of my day of wandering. I decided to wait it out inside the station – I needed to get a city map anyway, grab some local cash, and orient myself. First – not to spoil any surprises, but I saw more beautiful girls in my time in the Bratislava train station than I saw in Boston all summer.
I located an ATM and found my way to a withdrawal screen. I was stupidly unfamiliar with the local currency and exchange rate. The ATM presented me with a few options for withdrawing cash – 2,500; 1,000; 500 or 250. I had no clue how much these were in USD, so I just picked 1,000. That turned out to be around US$35, and way more than I’d need. I then procured myself a map of the city, determined where I was, and decided I would take the bus toward the city center and spend the afternoon and evening walking around.
I boarded the bus that seemed right, and about one or two stops later nervously re-consulted my map. A man near me looked at me and began speaking to me in Slovak. I gathered he was trying to help me, showed him the map, and pointed where I wanted to go. He pointed to himself, to say, I am going to the same place – you follow me. I said OK. Then a couple approached, having overheard our exchange, and the lady addressed me in very good English, also offering to help. Then another woman came up behind them but said little – she seemed just to be listening in. On that bus ride, I was already learning about the warmth and friendliness of this part of the world.
Then, our stop. The man got off, as did listening-lady. They both were looking back to make sure I was following, and I was. The couple said good-bye, and I offered a clumsy Slovak “dakujem” (thank you.) Listening-lady disappeared down a flight of stairs, and the man said “down” and pointed to where listening-lady had gone. As I got down below, I saw that listening lady was actually waiting for me. She said she could tell I was “from United States” and that she would show me the way, as she was also headed toward the center of the old town. A couple of blocks (and some smalltalk) later, she pointed me in the right direction and headed in her own – just after giving me a couple points of interest to look for along the way (the old executioner’s house, this old church, this romantic street, etc.)
Thus began my solo walk around old Bratislava. Wow – this was a completely different place from any I have ever seen. Marks of communist oppression, but a lot of up-and-coming creativity, vibrance and hope. Restaurants, lovely buildings, friendly people, and a rich, if rough, history.
After a lot of exploring and picture-taking, I stumbled across a slovak-italian restaurant (that’s right!) and had a great dinner. Appetizer was mozzarella and tomato salad, the entree was a really delicious type of long noodle with creamy sauce, and I had a glass of local white wine to go with it. During dinner, I had a great conversation with the maitre’d, a nice guy who had relocated to Slovakia from Italy several years ago. He had a lot of great things to say about the US, about Slovakia, and not much nice to say about his homeland.
When the bill arrived, I was having a very hard time believing that my currency calculations were correct – but they were – the total tab (with tax and tip) was about US$13. And (as I noticed later,) he had actually charged me for two glasses of wine.
I slowly made my way back to the train station, knowing the last trains back to Vienna were around 10 and 11. As I got into the main parking area for the station, I saw a guy in a suit and tie on the ground, with a briefcase beside him, in a state of total inebriation. The police were trying to help him get up but he was so gone that he couldn’t even begin to right himself. He was just rolling around in the dirt, doing a sort of playful shoo-away of the cops and they were laughing pretty hard. Eventually they called an ambulance (and drunk-man did the same thing to them) and the medics carted him away.
As I entered the terminal I saw that the train to Vienna left from track 6 in about 15 minutes. Perfect! I diligently located track 6 but saw no train there yet. So I walked around – and as departure time approached, re-checked the departure display (one of the older, mechanical ones) and saw that it still indicated an on-time departure from track 6. But track 6 was empty. I heard an announcement within which I understood only the word “Westbanhof,” the station in Austria to which I was headed. I asked two people where track 6 was, just to be sure, and I was in the right place. A few minutes later, at 10 sharp, I noticed a train on the other side of the tracks. As I was contemplating how much it looked like the kind of train that brought me here, it rolled off into the night. Of course, I’d later find out that that was my train, and the announcement had been that the train was on a different track (but I guess they can’t update the display?)
Luckily, another train would leave an hour later for Vienna.
I spent the next 45 minutes in the Bratislava station, sadly noting considerably fewer young hotties than I’d seen earlier in the day. I did note, however, a guy who had somehow passed out, upright, leaning against a heating radiator. I felt real bad for the dude and put a big candy bar in his pocket. I walked around checking things out – not very much to see, really, since the hottie exodus – and sat near the center of the station for a while, sipping coffee and watching the passed-out-guy sort of roll around on the radiator. While I was trying to figure out how he was holding himself up, as if I had jinxed him, he fell to the floor, sending the candy bar sliding across the floor. A woman rushed over, and I thought she was trying to help him, but she was going for the candy bar. I prepared to confront her about that, but she gently put the candy bar back in his pocket.
Train time arrived, and it was one of the not-so-nice EuroCity trains. While staking out a cool (well, decent) place to sit, I walked by a blonde guy who was hiccuping as very drunk people often do. I sat about four or five rows from him, facing in his direction. He was soon joined by a friend who was not hiccuping. A sophisticated-looking couple sat in one of the rows between us. Diagonally opposite me was a guy who looked eerily like one of my old Timberland bosses, Jeff Gatchell. I wondered if Jeff Gatchell would be caught dead wearing a sweater with little racing stripes up the sides and arms, then decided it wasn’t him.
I did a little reading and window-gazing. About an hour and a half into the train ride, I heard a funny gushy sound and the sophisticated couple bolted upright like they’d been hit with cattleprods and beelined for the other car. Hiccup man was throwing up. He and his friend thought this was really funny. After hiccup man settled down, he and his friend tried to clean themselves up with a few scraps of newspaper, headed out of the car in the wrong direction (like, toward open track – I thought they were going to jump off the train for a minute,) then went the other way into the other car where sophisticated-couple went (much to their delight, I’m sure.)
When we arrived in Vienna, I hit the subway. Oddly enough, also on my subway car headed in the same direction was Sophisticated Couple, the Jeff Gatchell impersonator, Hiccup Man, and his friend.
The Gatchell Impersonator would be the first to leave our little ad-hoc travel clan. At the first subway stop, he just got up and left without a word or a glance. Dude – after all we’ve been through – the train, the puking incident, the subway – you can’t even say good-bye? Sheesh.
The extra bonus, though, to make up for the hurtful, cold departure of the Gatchell Impersonator, was that we were joined by a gorgeous girl who walked and dressed like she was on a runway at Fashion Week. What a treat this time of the evening. Of course, Hiccup Man and his friend were making little comments and gestures from the back of the subway car. She didn’t know or didn’t care (both, actually.) It was then time for Hiccup Man’s sidekick to depart. After getting off the subway, he stood on the train platform waiting for the train to go, so he could make dumbass gestures to Hiccup Man as we sped off. Hiccup Man made a finger-gun at his friend as if to say Yeah, man – what a night! You and me! I puked, even!!
Then, it was my turn. I jumped off at my stop, hoping Runway Girl would follow, but no luck. She was trapped on the car with Hiccup Man, and only God knows what happened from there. I had to catch another subway line for just two stops – and while waiting for it, I saw a big Austrian dude who looked like he was probably Central Europe’s D&D Champion. He actually had some kind of horn or tusk on his waist. Odd, I thought.
There were several workers unsuccessfully working to get a manhole type cover open. D&D Champion got up, offering to help, and borrowed a couple of their tools. I really thought he was going to be able to do it, but it turns out his bark was bigger than his bite. (Or, perhaps I should say, his constitution was bigger than his strength? Sorry, D&D joke.)
I boarded my train and D&D Champion was right behind me. He began speaking to me in German, but immediately switched to English at my first English word, asking me which direction we were headed in. I told him, and this pleased him. He then gave me a mischievous look and said, vant a drink? I then realized he had his mysterious horn in his hand. I asked him what it was and he said, limon wodka! I thought, what the fuck, and took a swig. It was actually good. I told him so. He was really pleased about this, too.
Then, as we came to my stop, I thanked him, bid him adieu, and called it a night. Why can’t all my days be like this?