30 August, 2010

Vacation week 4e: Austria

We woke to the sound of several explosions in rapid succession. My first sleepy thought was that the Campground Clochard had snapped and was running amok amongst the campers. M jumped out of bed and dashed outside. I found him in his underwear staring groggily at the framework of the tent in front of our caravan. (He later said he thought one of the poles had snapped and had slammed up against the caravan.)

There was another loud explosion and we jumped back inside the caravan. As we climbed back into bed I remember asking: "You think we're safe in here?" and he answered something like: "I could probably poke my finger through these flimsy walls. You think it would actually stop a bullet?" And then we inexplicably fell back asleep.

When we woke up several hours later we peeked outside, and instead of seeing a row of corpses or police tape, we were greeted by an Austrian couple on their way to wash their breakfast dishes. When we asked what all the noise was about the man laughed jovially and said: "A wedding!" and walked on.


Apparently two young people from the tiny village were getting married. Rural Austrian weddings, at least in this part of the country, are a full day affair which gets kicked off by firing a cannon at very-dark-o'clock to get everyone out of their beds. (This particular cannon was in a field about 100m from our caravan.)

The entire population of Gleinstätten gathered on the street outside of our campground. They were all gussied up in traditional dress and had separated themselves into distinct groups which were arranged as stations that the bride- and groom-to-be had to visit in succession.

The first station was a bunch of co-workers from the groom's office. They all had signs around their necks with his picture which had been crossed out, a sign of his newly non-available status. He and the bride drank schnapps shots and posed for pictures.

Then they moved on to the tractor club. There were speeches and photos and more shots of schnapps.

Then the local farmers-- which was interesting because the groom had to milk a wooden cow. After which, of course, he got to drink some more schnapps.

The people in the wedding party were very friendly and even we were offered glasses of schnapps, which went down surprisingly well after our morning coffee!

The boys got packages of gummy bears, which upon closer inspection were labeled as Viagra: Get it up Gummy Bears and were to be taken liberally at any signs of "faulty piloting".

This was a very bizarre but thoroughly enjoyable morning, and the perfect way to round out our vacation....

29 August, 2010

Vacation week 4d: Croatia

It's a godforsaken gray, concrete, bullet-ridden hellhole.

This was M's cousin's exact description of Zagreb, the city where he and his family will be stuck living for at least 3 years. Not exactly a vote of confidence, but we wanted to see it anyway.

We spent a fantastic vacation in Istria back in 2007, and after spending so much time in Moscow, "gray, concrete and bullet-ridden" would probably feel like a homecoming!

So anyway, we went in with pretty low expectations and ended up being pleasantly surprised! Zagreb has some really interesting historic buildings, lots of greenery, is extremely walkable and the people were very friendly!

The historic center is quite small. We stopped off at the tourist information center where we were given a map, a handful of brochures and a cheery "Have a nice stay!".

The necktie was invented here as a reference to scarves that the Croats wore around their necks during the 30 Years' War in the 17th century. And some guy named Slavoljub Penkala invented the ballpoint pen here however long ago. Of course, with a name like Slavoljub he was destined for greatness anyway, wasn't he?! (That or he was destined for incarceration. Personally I'm glad he took the high road and invented the pen....)

The V boy ice cream rating for this city: 5 stars! Even M and I were able to partake in the ice cream action this time since there were 5 (count em, FIVE) different sugar-free varieties to choose from!

We had a great time wandering around exploring the city and then ate a really enjoyable dinner out on M's cousin's balcony. We were blessed with great weather, good Croatian wine, lively conversation and a really gratifying trip!

***Apparently M's cousin and I have very different tastes because he lived in Spain for 8 years and *loved* it. I spent a very trying week there once: had a traumatic run-in with a taxi driver and was ripped off in almost every transaction I made! That was my idea of a hellhole! NO ME GUSTO!!!

27 August, 2010

Vacation Week 4c: Hungary

Today we took a trip to Hungary, my grandmother's birthplace. I'd really like to see Transylvania, the area she came from, but it was too far away from our campsite, so we visited nearby Szombathely instead.

Entering Hungary is like entering into a completely different world. The language is totally foreign for me-- neither Russian nor German nor English helped me here. The people we spoke to were very friendly but it was hard to find anyone who spoke anything other than Hungarian, the signs were all indecipherable and I just couldn't seem to get my bearings even though I really tried.

We arrived shortly before lunch and paying for parking was a challenge, as usual. I quickly found a meter, but had to go in search of a bank to get some forint first. Then I had to break a large note, so I hopped into the bakery to buy something small. There was bread on the shelves, but none of it looked very appetizing so I bought a bag of candies for the kids. But these weren't just any old candies, these were tasty Negroes! (WTF?! The kids missed the humor of it but I have to admit that I giggled childishly every time we ate one!)

I really wanted to try some Hungarian food so we stopped a friendly woman on the street and asked her to recommend a nice restaurant. We should probably have taken it as a bad omen when she replied: "Hungarian food? No idea. I only eat Chinese food."

When we finally found a place M and the kids eschewed paprikash in favor of pizza, and I had to laugh when they got it: BBQ sauce smeared on pizza dough and adorned with slices of spam and analog cheese.

I was feeling slightly superior until it came time to choose my own fare. For lack of any other filling vegetarian options I went for a "Light Lunch": fried mushrooms, fried cheese and vegetables from a can with a side order of mayo-based sauce.

Feeling heavy and a bit nauseous we rolled back out onto the street to explore the town. The center square was actually quite pretty with a wide pedestrian area and a couple of fountains. The kids bought an ice cream with their pocket money which they happily deemed "cheap AND yummy!"

We kept laughing about these ubiquitous signs that said Kotzponts-- no idea what it means in Hungarian, but when said in exactly the right way sounds like a "Vomit spot" if one mixes Dutch and English. This later proved to be very fitting when B actually threw up at one. (Even he saw the humor in the situation once he'd rinsed out his mouth.)

It might not surprise you to hear that we didn't stay very long in Szombathely. We just couldn't find our mojo and decided to take a long scenic drive back home in order to get a better feel for the Hungarian countryside.

The surroundings were lush and green, but the towns we saw seemed run-down and forlorn. There was none of the vivacious charisma that seemed to pervade Slovenia, nor the optimism that we felt in Slovakia. Instead the word that kept coming into my mind while driving through these small towns was: "hopeless".

I have to say that as much as I wanted to like Hungary I just didn't. Which maybe isn't fair to say based on one trip to one city and the surrounding areas. I hope I am completely wrong in my quick judgment, but don't think I'll be going back any time soon to find out...

25 August, 2010

Vacation Week 4b: Slovakia

Today I finally made good on my vow to return to Bratislava. I use the word "return" only in the very loosest sense, because my first trip lasted only about an hour and a half.

Back in 1991 I flew Czech Air to the then USSR for a summer study program at Moscow State University. Czechoslovakia was still a single entity but it had two capitals and some bored bureaucrat had decreed that every plane making a stopover in Prague also had to spend time in Bratislava.

(This was just the first bit of absurdity I'd experience that summer and it perfectly set the tone for my trip into the twilight zone of decaying soviet bureaucracy.)

So there we were, stuck at the airport. We weren't allowed out. There was nothing else to do but drink Czech beer, play cards and speculate about what might lay outside the walls of this heavily guarded compound.

Fast forward 19 years. I'm a lot grayer, have a family and a dog in tow, but I'm finally getting to see Bratislava!

Our arrival was perfect, one of my favorite moments of the day. We parked out on a public street and needed to pay for parking. I hopped out of the car and started searching for parking meters. nothing. Maybe we need one of those parking cards to show the time of arrival like we do in Germany? No dice.

Fully perplexed I went into observation mode: two different people passed me with what looked like a handful of lottery tickets which they had bought from a young guy in a bright orange vest. When I asked him about parking he smiled and asked me how long I'd be staying. I wasn't sure, so we decided I'd buy 4 hours worth of parking.

I gave him EUR 2,80 and he gave me 4 tickets and explained that I'd have to scratch off the day, month, year and time of day on each one. There was one ticket for each hour and I had to display them all easily visible on the dashboard. Each of these scratch-off forms was the size of a regular brochure and I saw some cars with 8 parking tickets laid out wall-to-wall all the way across the dashboard! (I can't believe I didn't take a picture of this! *kicking self*)

Coasting on my small victory in Ljubliana, I voted that we eat at a vegetarian restaurant again for lunch. (This was grudgingly accepted by S in exchange for a promise of a meat feast at a steakhouse for dinner.) We found an intriguing sounding place in the guidebook-- and re-entered the twilight zone. We were handed plates and two friendly guys doled out the gray, gloppy stuff of your choosing. (And there was a surprising variety of gray gloppy stuff to choose from!) We washed it all down with rosehip juice. It was all very bizarre and I was in heaven. S just seemed stunned.

Downtown Bratislava is surprisingly small, a fact that we didn't realize before we paid a king's ransom to tour it in a tourist train with no roof. The first 15 minutes we traveled 150 meters and the sun beat down on us and I laughed until I cried at the exasperated expression on M's face. The loudspeakers blared little tidbits about the historic buildings next to us and everything was then repeated in 3 other languages. Then the train lurched another 25 meters and the next little tidbit was given, etc.

Once the tour got underway, however, it was really worth it. A surprising number of famous composers including Mozart, Beethoven, Liszt and Chopin lived in Bratislava at one time or another. As apparently did Liszt's favorite one-armed piano protégé. (I really liked that particular factoid.)

Bratislava's got some beautiful rococo buildings and old churches and also the requisite number of wacky communist structures like the concrete UFO that dominates the skyline. Stately Bratislava Castle sits upon a hilltop and provides a magnificent view of the Danube and surrounding area. The city itself, however, has succumbed to the pressures of tourism, and is full of chain stores and noisy English lads on stag weekends. I'm really glad we went, but now my curiosity is sated and I can wait another 19 years before we do this again...