In mid-April, my parents come to Europe for a few weeks. Although they do spend a good amount of time here in Berlin, this blog is going to focus solely on our excursion to Austria, Hungary, and Slovakia. Get psyched.
We start our travels by heading to Vienna. My ma loves The Sound of Music, so she has wanted to go to Austria forever. I don’t really have much for expectations, so I am blown away by how gorgeous the city is. The opera house itself is amazing with its huge staircase reminiscent of that in the movie Titanic (and probably the actual Titanic, but I never know whether or not to trust Hollywood). We are lucky enough to get tickets (from scalpers dressed like George Washington) for that night’s show, Der Rosenkavalier (The Knight of the Rose). Seeing as we are planning on going to the opera, I should have brought some dress clothes. Didn’t think that far ahead though, so I sidle on into the place in jeans and a hoodie while the rest of the audience is wearing either a three piece suit or a designer dress. Classy as always. In my defense, my backpack was never going to fit a suit and a pair of dress shoes. Anyway, I’m now going to tell you about our seats so you can ogle a little bit, and then I’ll explain why that is thoroughly unnecessary. Our tickets are for the elevated booths that line the sides of the main auditorium (is it bad that the only way I can think to describe this better is the kind of place Honest Abe was sitting when he was assassinated?). These allow for a sense of privacy while still getting a perfect view of the show. As I realize now, not total privacy. There are actually seats behind these perfect ones. This is where my parents are at. And, at best, you can see only half the stage from there. But when you’re my mother’s height (an optimistic five foot), I’m guessing you just see a lot of shadows. My seat is on the balcony section directly above them called Ganz Rechts. This translates into “way right.” Well, I was as ganz rechts of the Ganz Rechts section as one can be, so I can’t see more than a third of entire the stage… the lights go dim and the opera starts. I can’t pretend to be hugely cultured in the ways of the opera, but the orchestra and actors’ singing are incredible. Not being able to see the stage (hence no comment on the acting) does allow me to appreciate a couple other things though. For one, the man seated directly in front of me. He’s elegantly dressed like all the other Viennese and even has his golden, mini binoculars which seem so quintessential for the opera. He leaves these on the ledge in front of himself for the first half hour but all of a sudden, grabs them so fast I thought they might fall. What brings this about you ask? A lady with a voluptuous chest walks onto the stage, and I guess he needed a better look. It was hilarious. But trust me, no binoculars were necessary. Another great part of not really seeing the stage is witness certain things that aren’t supposed to be seen. For example, I can see the catwalk. This gives me the perfect view to watch a man dressed in a military uniform completely biff it on the catwalk. Fail. Luckily for him though, with all the singing I don’t think anyone hears it. By the time the final bow is taken, four hours have passed. I definitely did enjoy it, but there’s no way I could do this on a daily basis.
Another highlight of Vienna is the Hapsburg palace called Schönbrunn. And let me tell you, this dynasty knew how to spend money. Wow. This place is ridiculous. It has a thousand-some rooms within the palace itself, but then there are still the gardens in the back. These are so large that it now houses a ZOO. Go big or go home must have been the Hapsburgs motto (and you thought the X-games game up with that one).
Another day we go on a day trip to Budapest, Hungary. We’re doing this with a tour bus, which isn’t ideal but definitely easiest for the whole fam. Our “bus” turns out to just be a dude’s van (luckily not down by the river). Our guide/man who owns the van drives us into Hungary with five others while explaining everything one could ever want to know about “Hangry” (I laugh every time, because in college we used to say that ill-tempered hungry folk are just hangry). Eventually we arrive at Budapest. Interestingly, it is actually two cities (Buda and Pest; no, I didn’t make that up) separated by the Danube River that were established at completely different times but are now considered as one. Buda is the older side where the historical section is raised above the rest of the city on a small rock pedestal with only two streets running the length of it. One of the main sights there is a Gothic, fortress-looking church with a roof that has a multi-colored, speckled pattern (for lack of a better term) that’s crazy enough to make paisley jealous. Quite unique. The second big tourist attraction is the Buda Castle which has an expansive palace and an incredible view of the Danube and Pest just across it. With only an hour to explore this part of the city, we rush back to our “bus.” Apparently that isn’t necessary, because this girl from New Zealand somehow manages to get herself lost. Ordinarily I’d be understanding of something like that seeing as I’m no Magellan, but seriously, there are TWO streets. A half an hour later she returns looking haggard, lost, and confused. Next time we’ll be sure to tie a rope between her and the van like people do in blizzards. Anyway, after this we head to Pest. There are so many beautiful places to explore that it becomes immediately apparent that seeing this city in a day is utterly impossible. In the end, we placate our desires by simply walking along the Danube.
Slovakia is incredible. I’ve traveled to quite a few places in my life, but not many have felt quite so real. As we get off the train in Bratislava, there are no signs in any language other than Slovak. We are able though to recognize a bathroom sign, so we head downstairs. I then come across the two glummest people I have ever witnessed (they make Eeyore look as jovial as Pee-wee Herman). While sitting in a dilapidated wooden shed that is a sorry excuse for a cashier’s stand, they listen to a comedy show and take absolutely no enjoyment out of the programming. Right next to them, there is a sign hanging that has a lot of Slovak written on it. I look at them quickly and realize there’s no hope of getting any kind of translation. It does become fairly apparent though that we need to pay for the bathroom. After giving them the money, my mother starts walking towards the lady’s bathroom, and the woman yells something while waving some brown paper towels (like the ones your elementary school had that were barely a step up from corrugated cardboard). They have no other toilet paper… even 25 years after the fall of the USSR, there is still a definite difference here.
After many unfruitful attempts at finding a person to speak English with us (even the lady I buy a map from in the train station), we finally find someone who tells us how to get into the center of the city. We take a bus but accidentally don’t get off until we’re a little ways past the historical part of the city (not that we really know). It feels to me like the embodiment of what was the Soviet Union. Typically, when you go to the big touristy cities, it is very difficult to see anything other than the façade that they try to present to you. This is not the case in Bratislava. It’s real. And I love it for that. There are crumbling, abandoned-looking buildings right next to the President’s gorgeous mansion. Crazy. Eventually, we find our way to the historical center. It isn’t very big, but every time we think we have seen all it has to offer, we are surprised by another beautiful building or square quietly tucked away in a corner. For dinner, we find a place that is enough off the beaten path that there are only Slovaks in the restaurant, but it still has an English menu. The best part of this menu is that they serve “sterilized vegetables” (those won’t be reproducing) and that ice cream is separated by a comma to make it “ice, cream” (I’m not sure if that means the contents are separated as well). I decide to get some kind of Slovakian leg of lamb which turns out to be fantastic. In the end, we eat like kings for what must have been about half of what we were spending in Western Europe on lesser meals. After this, we hop on a bus and catch our train with, literally, only a minute to spare. This city is definitely not magnificent in the traditional sense, but it has its own charm that makes it wonderfully unique and worthwhile.
These little jaunts into Eastern Europe have made me realize it is somewhere I need to explore much more. When that will be, I’m not sure. But sometime. After our trip, my parents come back to Berlin where we’re able to share a few relaxing days together. When they finally leave, it feels a bit lonely after so much excitement. No matter what though, I know that feeling can’t last. There is just way too much going in the next month for that to be possible.
Hugs and hand pounds,