Go East, Young(ish) Men

Maybe we didn’t go as far as we could have, and maybe we aren’t as young as we used to be, but traveling with a couple of friends you’ve known for 20 years or more can be pretty damn fun.

This spring I traveled with a couple of friends of mine to Central/Eastern Europe for a train trip. Keith and I went to high school together and Neill and I first met during our freshman year of college. There’s a lot of history there for me with both of these guys. I’ve always leery about traveling or doing much of anything else when 3 people are involved because the risk of someone being left out is always there. However, I’m happy to say we traveled well together.

I had been in Paris for the previous week, enjoying the city with another friend of mine, and Keith and Neill headed for Prague together. I met up with them at the house we rented via AirBnB a few hours after they arrived. We had planned to spend a few days in Prague and then start out on a train journey to Vienna, Bratislava and the Budapest. I had been to Vienna once before but it was years ago, and it was mostly a work trip, but the rest would be new to me, and I was determined to make the most of it.

Rather than relay everything we did, I thought I would do a bit of reflecting on each of the places we visited.


Because the Czechs and the Russian Soviets really didn’t get a long, the Russians largely “punished” the Czechs by refusing to “modernize” their cities with new brutalist architecture. Ultimately this was the best thing that could have happened for the city of Prague. It was left largely untouched and  much of its old world beauty is still in check. (get it?)


We were there on Good Friday and the Easter Markets were in full swing and it was incredibly cold, but the mulled wine, hot chocolate, and warm food kept us feeling good. I was under the mistaken impression that if we were there on a holiday weekend, the crowds wouldn’t be so bad because no one would be traveling. I could not have been more wrong. Instead everything was crowded, but weirdly, it wasn’t that bad. I generally hate being in crowds and waiting in long lines, but this was different. I think the three of us entertained each other enough to keep my leo tendencies from becoming overwhelming. They may argue otherwise, though.

We toured the cathedrals and walked the historic cobble stone streets, but the real highlight was the morning Keith and I woke up early and walked out to Charles Bridge to take pictures. Let me tell you that if you’ve grown up in the southern US, as I have, that is difficult to explain how much really cold weather hurts. There is something particularly terrible about European cold air. It takes my breath away, and makes every joint in my body ache. For the potential of a good photography though, I’ll suffer through. I wasn’t disappointed.


The bridge itself is an odd structure with a guard tower at the ends and a few dozen religious statutes in various conditions of various quality lining the sides. During most of the day and night its clogged with tourists and vendors selling their cheap merchandise, but early in the morning, it’s mostly empty and if the conditions are right you can take a few impressive photographs. Luck was on our side that morning and there was a hazy mist floating above the river in the cold air and surrounding the bridge. It created a mysterious and reverential quality to the bridge that gave it a majesty that is seemed to lack during the harshness of midday. There were only a few people on the bridge, other photographers and a couple of people that had crawled out of bars and nightclubs stopping to watch the sun rise or to feverishly kiss the new love they had found just as “last call” had been announced.


The odd things about Prague, though, and I’m not sure if this phenomenon is centralized to the city or holds true on a larger scale, but they seem to have a strange fixation with women’s breasts. Everywhere there was the possibility to portray women with enormous knockers, they seemed to take it. Oh, and the headlights were always on. It was so strange. A relief carved into the side of government building showing peasants harvesting wheat showed women in low cut shirts, cleavage heaving forward and looking like the tips of Saturn rockets. Mannequins in the store windows had impossibly small waists, but all seemed to be Double D’s upstairs. The strangest of all, though, was in a restaurant we discovered, and enjoyed so much that we ate there twice. It sold traditional Czech food and beer and was decorated with murals for peasant life. The restaurant had been in business for well over 100 years, but we questioned the age of the murals-one in particular. The questionable art showed a woman in a wet t-shirt, with large bosoms coming out of what was obviously very, very cold water, with a large green fish lodged between her breasts. We couldn’t figure out what it was all about and it seemed as though no one else could either.


When I think about Vienna two memories come to mind in quick succession. The first was Draga. We arrived in the city late on Easter night, and the owner of the apartment we rented hadn’t retured from visiting family and friends that day, so she notified us that her maid, Draga, would be letting us into the apartment. Draga’s English wasn’t very good, she had informed us. In fact, Draga’s English was nonexistent. Her son came with her and translated for us.

Generally in these situations, you exchange greetings and quick pleasantries, and walked through the apartment. You are handed a key, and then you are on your own. However, Draga took her job seriously. She walked us into each room, including the bathroom, and pointed out everything that was available to us. Things like running water and electrical lighting were high on her list of demonstrations. She flipped the light switch and the lights came on. She pointed to them and said, in a  thick eastern accent of undeterminable origin and her son translated, “When you push the switch up, the lights come on.” She pointed to the lights as they turned off and on with every flick of the switch. We were a good audience, and ooohhhed and ahhhed with each change from light to dark. However, the more complicated of technologies, such as turning on the TV or working the NASA inspired coffee maker clearly didn’t warrant much attention from Draga. We would suffer through figuring those out on our own once she and her son left.

The other memory that comes to mind of Vienna was our being arrested. Before you get too excited, I should tell you that were arrested much in the same way that you are technically arrested when you are pulled over for speeding. We weren’t put in handcuffs and read our rights. Still, though, when two Austrian undercover police officers stop you and want to write you a ticket, you have to take the ticket. The mess started when we bought train tickets to Bratislava. The agent told us we could ride another train to get to the departing station, without charge. We did and everything went as planned. We also bought tickets to Budapest and planned on doing the same thing. Here’s the thing, though- none of us were really knowledgeable about the Vienna public transit system, and therefore didn’t realize that the train network was actually two completely different networks that happen to interconnect and because they are owned by two different companies, buying a ticket for one doesn’t allow you to ride on the other for free. One system of trains operated in the city and the other operated outside of the city in the suburbs and surrounding cities. When we got on the metro to take us to the train station to catch the train to Budapest, a man and woman on the train began to show people their badges, and ask people on our car to see their tickets. When they got to the three of us they asked us for ours, and we promptly showed them what we had. They were perplexed and flipped through our train tickets several times. We stopped at the train station and told them we had to get off. They barely spoke English and we spoke no German.

Thinking back now its funny how the three of us dealt with the situation. Keith shrugged and played the “I am a foreigner here, and do not understand your ways” card. He did this with his eyes, mostly, because again, they spoke almost no English. Neill, attempted to negotiate. He asked the guy to let it go since we didn’t know there were two train lines in operation. The male officer rebuffed their attempts with a stony emotionless stare that somehow seemed to show both slight empathy, and still seemed to say, You have broken a rule in a Germanic country. You will be punished, but bless you for thinking you could talk your way out of this. Finally it was my turn, and I threw in the towel immediately. I figured we had no idea how long it was going to take and we had a train to catch. I went a different route. I asked how much was the fine and if their was an ATM in the train station. The officers worked out a compromise because of our desperation and ignorance. Instead of punishing all three of us, he would give us a single collective ticket. We would each hit the ATM and we admitted our guilt, paid our fine, grabbed a cup of coffee, and realized we just got  a souvenir ticket and one hell of a good story out of that morning.


I’ll begin by saying that I think that had conditions been different, we would all have enjoyed Bratislava more. It isn’t that we didn’t enjoy it, per se, but it was just a little weird, and by conditions, I mean the weather, the economy, and communism.

12143237_10153295113391504_6271206035846334768_nBratislava does have some really amazingly beautiful neighborhoods, full of traditional European charm. It also has some really ugly Communist holdovers that do little to impress anyone. It was a rainy, dreary day when we visited and as far as we could tell, once we got out of the really old parts of the city, we were the only tourists to be seen. In fact, in some of the state buildings and palaces, we were the only people there. When we went into the royal palace the women working  there seemed shocked that we walked in, and were perplexed when we bought tickets to tour the building. They had to turn the lights on for us.

One of the unusual highlights of the day was a burger joint we stopped into for lunch. The amenities were nice, but the burgers and the beer were odd enough to be make the meal uniquely Bratislavan. For starters, the beer was green. I’m sure it was simply food coloring, but apparently, around Easter, green beer is a big thing in that part of the world. We had a local stout (or two) and ordered burgers with a local cheese that the waitress warned us was “different.” It certainly was. For starters, when the burgers arrived, the smell of the meat was overpowered by the strong smell of the cheese. The taste of the cheese was odd, too. At first, it didn’t seem to have much flavor at all and then suddenly it turned bitter and then just a quickly mellowed out again.


IMG_7943We continued on to our final destination- Budapest. I had no idea what to expect from the city. How Communist in tone and feel would it be today? Was it more Eastern European or Western in its social charms? What I found was a city that was decidedly a mixture of east and west. It’s struggling still to right the economic toll that communism has had on the country, but I found a city where the people were friendly, and outgoing, capitalism is alive and well, and where people eat rooster testicle stew.

I’m proud to be a history nerd, and was completely excited by idea of visiting and touring the “House of Terror.” It’s a home in the nicest area of the city where in the 1930s Hungarian fascists set up the headquarters of the secret police. When the Nazis took over, they continued the operation, and when the Communists came to power after World War II, they moved in to the facility. The house was remodeled so that the secret police could hide in plain sight. Their offices, listening stations, and interrogation rooms, torture rooms, holding cells, and even execution chambers were all set up. It’s chilling to walk through and to see the devastating impact it had on society. The truly unnerving aspect to it all, though was the last room with a list and photo of each person killed there AND a list and photo of all the people that worked there. If the members of the secret police were alive, it said so AND told where they lived. Don’t get me wrong, I fully support exposing them and what they did, but it would seem so strange to me to be a visitor there and look up and see Grandma on the wall. I wouldn’t know what to do. Do you toss her out and cut ties with her because of the awfulness she was involved in? Would you pretend you didn’t know? It seemed like the question of how to move forward really defined Budapest and Hungary, in generally. There were western stores and people seemingly had fully embraced western ideology, yet, traditional conservative ideology still played a role in society. How do you move forward without abandoning your past? Even if it’s a past that is pretty horrible, it still made you who you are today. It’s a tough predicament to be in.

The conflict between new and old, poverty and wealth, west and east, played out everyday outside of our apartment. We stayed near the river, on one of the nicest shopping streets in the city. Even so, as we would stroll down the street, prostitutes, pimps, or their hangers-on would inevitably proposition us. On one night alone, this happened five times. It tended to always be the same. If it was a woman herself, she would try to initiate a conversation by asking if one of us had a lighter for her cigarette. Then she would start asking questions about where we were from and want to talk about America. From here the conversation would start to get a bit more personal, and we would speed up to walk away. Others on the streets would try to lure us into bars, which were little more than cover businesses for brothels. They would stand on the street and say to us as we walked by, “Visition, stimulation, penetration?” in their thick eastern accents. We saw this all over the street. Anyone that looked like they had money- tourists, businessmen on their way home, even retirees- were constantly being forced to ignore young women who were seemingly struggling under a sudden and severe cigarette lighter shortage.   The whole situation was so sad. I really believe that these were people that had been left behind by the move toward western capitalization. They wanted a better life, but had no alternative. So they were selling themselves, or others, on the streets.

When we weren’t chasing off hookers and pimps, though, we were most likely to be found eating, drinking, and wandering through the Easter Market that had been set up out side of apartment on the square. Hands down, the best food I ate during my entire two week trip was from the vendors in the market, and I feel like we got to experience real Hungarian food and real Hungarian people here. Sitting outside, talking to people, and eating so well, was for me, the highlight of the city. We did quickly realize that they had some unusual tastes. Yes, there was rooster testicle stew for sale, and no, I did not try it. I did gorge on various other stews, onions, roasts, and breads and was very happy to do so.


Maybe it was because we’ve all known each other for so long, or maybe it was because we are coming into the stage of life where you just don’t care anymore, but the three of us engaged in one of the more unique conversations I’ve ever had while we were in Budapest. Apparently, at some point we all determined we were dying after going to the bathroom and seeing lots and lots of red in the bowl below. At first, though we all, kept the horror to ourselves, thinking something clearly terrible was happening in our bowels. After a few drinks though, we started talking and realized we were all dealing with this situation. After another round, and a perusal of a tourist gift shop, we realized it was the result of our diets. Paprika is pretty much in EVERYTHING and in huge amounts in that part of the world. It’s sold in every gift shop, market and on every corner. We weren’t dying. We had just been eating waaaay too much paprika.

For me, this incident pretty much summed up the entirety of the trip. It wasn’t what I thought it was, it was something much more obvious. Central and Eastern Europe aren’t what I thought they were – cold, communistic, different. They are their own unique experiences. Before going there, I was trying to make it fit into my own ideas of what it should be based on a narrative I had in my head. My mind was getting the better of me. Instead I found peoples that were all in some ways at a crossroads, trying to move forward into a future they weren’t too sure about and trying to come to terms with pasts that were always slightly holding them back.

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Categories: Europe, My View of Things


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