The End of the Road, for now anyway (Travelogue, part 4)

October 2003

Hello everyone,

We’ve really appreciated updates, news and responses from home.  E-mail, while fairly accessible, is not cheap, so we haven’t been able to send personal responses.  But, we’ll be home soon enough and will be in touch then.

Two culinary mishaps ensued in CT.  I had not yet learned my lesson about translation assumptions, despite my salad mix up in Vienna. Here, I ordered what was translated on the menu as mixed grilled fish, thinking fish like Nemo. To my horror, what was brought out was a large platter of shellfish, which I don’t eat.  (I can’t bear the idea that some poor creature has been boiled alive because of me.) A lobster, half a crab, some king prawns and three items that neither Paul nor I could identify. One look at my face and Paul realized that I was not going to eat it, so he valiantly attempted to eat all he could. The waitress, realizing something was wrong, came over and I explained that in Eng. fish means with fins and gills and a tail. (Actually, what I did was make wavy motions with my hand since I don’t know the words for fish body parts in Italian.) Then, I ordered a grilled sole. So, even with a menu translated for you, it always pays to ask for specifics. Lesson learned. (BTW, After getting over the shock of having fish served in tact with head, tail and skeleton, I had honed my deboning skills down to one minute.)

The second mishap is really more of a mystery, and if anyone can identify the mystery substance, we’d be grateful if you’d let us know.  I ordered two cups of hot tea and I know I did it correctly because it’s what I’d been saying for the last five days and we’d always gotten tea.  What we got this time was unidentifible to us.  The liquid was dark. Now, the Eng. drink their tea very strong, but strong tea is dark brown. This was black, blacker than the darkest roast coffee you can imagine.  At first, we thought the waiter had made a mistake and served us coffee, but it didn’t smell like coffee and it came with a lemon wedge. Paul took a sip and made a weird face. He guessed squid ink. I tried it. The water was tepid and the liquid had an extremely bitter, almost peppery taste that even two packets of sugar didn’t touch. We left the rest alone.  Can anyone help us identify this?

We bid a fond arrivederci to Cinque Terra, towns free of any form of franchise, and to Italy, land of erratic ATMs that seem to work on a whim and of people who sing all the time–the gondoliers, the fishermen, the construction workers, the bakers, old men sitting on stone benches.  It’s a happy place. Our time in CT had mentally prepared us for the rigors of travel on the Italian train system. If there is rhyme or reason to this system, it is not apparent. Frequent strikes are called last minute, trains are often late or do not arrive on the publicized platform.  And, if you’re trying to catch a train, this results in a mad scramble to get to the right platform, not easy with luggage.  We shared our compartment to Rosenheim, Germany, with an Austrian sugar daddy and his much, much younger Italian wife.

Our trip through the Alps was, you guessed it, lovely. They are majestic mountains. Snow was already on the caps and the valley was green. The woods are packed densely with fir trees.  Upon arrival in the brisk, bright Bavarian state, we were pleased to find that there is a vertical luggage conveyor belt at the train station.  You walk up the stairs and your luggage follows along. Handy, and energy conservation conscious.  The conveyor is not constantly running. You start it by placing your luggage on the belt.

The area is extremeley quaint, to the point of looking like a movie set or toy model town. Think Heidi; picture The Sound of Music; imagine living surrounded by a luxury golf course. Green, rolling hills wherever you turn; woods to the left and right; rivers, streams and ponds full of ducks in the middle of town. There are cows, sheep and chickens on the side of the road. May poles are adorned with figures. Homes have wooden shutters and window boxes full of flowers. Bavarian painting style adorns some of the buildings.  The roofs are red tile, slanted for the snow. We actually had to stop the car to let a herd of cows cross the road.  (One was a renegade and instead of turning right to follow the herd, crossed straight ahead and ate the grass there.) There are absolutely no billboards anymore–not even along the autobahn. People have lived in the same towns, same homes, for hundreds of years. It’s almost too clean and pretty to be true.

A popular, non-alcoholic drink here is called Spezi.  It’s a mix of cola and lemon soda or sometimes orange soda.  But not lemonade, as I was vehemently told. Both Pepsi and Coke have their own brands of it.

When you’re at the Gasthof (a tavern inn), you may not sit at the table with the Stammtisch sign. This is for the regulars only–people who’ve been going there for many, many years. We were told that as foreigners, if we sat at the stammtisch, we’d be politely ushered to another table and that of as somewhat ignorant. If we were Germans who sat at the stammtisch,  we’d be not-so-politely told to move and run the risk of not being served at all. The gasthofs mostly have their own farms, so all the food is very fresh. We had schnitzel, which is breaded meat that is fried.  Very tasty. All restaurants in Germany must disclose if any ingredients are artificial. So, preservatives, coloring, etc., are avoided as much as possible, as they are not popular. (The Germans are v. environmentally conscious. In fact, one of the first things we saw in town were the local recycling bins on the street.  You have your standard glass, plastic and aluminum, as well as clothing. That’s right, the government will recycle any unwanted clothing. No need for Goodwill drop-offs, etc. )

Gas at uninflated prices costs about $4.40 a gallon and all gas stations are pump first, pay later. Such trust!  Police cars, white with a bright green stripe through the middle, are mostly Mercedes and some Audis. Semis and delivery trucks are also Mercedes. So stylish!

We visited crazy  King Ludwig’s castle. He certainly had a fanciful imagination. Swans adorned every room, every inch of every room. Wagner operas painted on the walls and ceilings. A stalagtite grotto with an overlooking view of the lake and grounds. While we were tired of ornate and elaborate palaces, this was unlike anything else we’d seen. It really looks like Disneyland, or I should say Disneyland looks like it.

After a quick one hour drive, we were back in Austria to visit Salzburg. It is a lovely town, much like Prague, but somehow cheerier. I think it has to do with being surrounded by so much greenery. We saw a tavern that claims to have been in operation since 803 AD, obviously with renovations.

Tomorrow we head back to London for three days and then we return home.  So, this is the last travleogue unless something stupendous happens in London. Someone wanted a highlights list, so here is one for Paul and one for me.
Paul’s list: London–climbing almost 400 steps to the top of St. Paul’s cathedral and visiting Hackney where Rita grew up, esp. seeing her Hogwarts-esque middle school. Prague–the old town square and the cheap prices of food and Velvet beer. Vienna–the wurst stands and the Peter Breugal paintings. Venice–wandering the streets, taking in the incredible buildings, and floating by the opera in the church during the gondola ride. Cinque Terra–the ocean color, the grilled seabass and the pesto, which originated there. Rosenheim–the fresh pastries in the old-school bakery.

Rita’s list: London–seeing friends and family. Prague–being able to navigate in a city where nothing is written in English and the language is not even remotely similar. Vienna–being able to stomach that much meat. Venice–a tie between listening to the restaurant orchestras at Piazza San Marco and listening to a Vivaldi concert in a dimly lit church at night.  Cinque Terra–the sheer wonder of being there. Rosenheim–spending time with our friend Martin and seeing the fantasy castle. Getting away from city life also a huge plus.

Finally, some observations: everywhere but London, restaurant receipts are handwritten and change is made at the table, not brought back from the cashier. Grog seems to be popular in Prague, Vienna and Rosenheim.  I’d seen it in Old English texts, but had no idea what Beowulf was drinking. Found out that it’s rum and hot water. Not to be disgusting, but squat and drop toilets are STILL in existence. No smoking signs are routinely ignored or not enforced. Keyboards on the main continent have swapped the Y and Z keys. Europeans do not hate Americans, as in the people. We didn’t come across any problems.  But, they do dislike GW Bush intensely, as we were told in London, Vienna and Rosenheim. However, as Paul and I also dislike GW Bush intensely, we understand completely.

This has been a wonderful trip, and while we won’t be taking another one for at least a couple of years, it has whetted our appetite for more, more, more.  The world is a wonderful, exciting place and we can’t wait to explore as much as we can.

love,
Rita and Paul

Oh, Vienna! (Travelogue, part 2)

October 2003

We bid Na Sheldanou (goodbye) to Prague and enjoyed a pleasant 5 hour train ride to Vienna. Autumn was showing its true form, as we passed through woods with amber, yellow, brown and red leaves.  Through farmland, little towns, crumbling fortresses atop hills clouded with mist.

And, Gruss Gott (God bless or Bless God; we haven’t figured out which) to Vienna, home of the choir, sausage, coffee and waltz.  Once we gotten our bus-metro passes, we set off to our lovely little pension, which is located just off the fashionable Maria Hilfilg Strasse shopping area.  We
have a metro stop that is 50 ft away and is v. handy.

We decided that as we’d already experienced so much high culture in the last 2 weeks (symphony, opera, museums and cathedrals ad nauseum) that we’d spend our first night in Vienna with some good old American brain candy.  So, we went to see Pirates of the Caribbean at the Eng. language theater just down the street.  Paul liked it a lot, as did I.  And, I must say that Johnny Depp still looks fine, even in flamboyant make-up, and now that Orlando Bloom has shorn his Prell commercial blond locks, he looks really good, too.  But, I digress…

Vienna is a city of contrasts.  It is regal, yet pedestrian. Classical, yet contemporary. Proud of its history and culture, yet cosmopolitan. And, even though we’re in a foreign country, this seems so much more familiar than Prague.  (Paul and I both took Ger. in high school, so our broken Ger.
could be why we feel more comfortable.)  Everything is precise, efficient and clean.  The Viennese are obviously v. proud of their city, as the streets are immaculate and there’s no grafitti (sp?)to be seen. The metro has flat screen TVs inside the carriages displaying the news (no audio, just captions) and there are large screen versions on the actual platforms. In contrast to Prague, there is v. little in the way of public displays of affection.  In P., lots of hand holding, kissing and cuddling; here, v. little of it.  I hugged Paul on the metro platform and got a few curious looks. Little cultural differences are interesting.

We saw a Mozart concert with the orchestra in full dress for the time period, including wigs.  At first we thought it’d be schmaltzy, but they were very good.  The museums are chock-full of lovely art, including a wonderful Gustav Klimt exhibit. Saw just a little of the immense Hapsburg dynasty wealth when we visited the Schonnbrunn Summer Palace.  So much gold, marble, etc.  It’s amazing to view how the royalty lived. As with Prague, we’ve spent much of the time looking up at all the incredible architecture.  A statue here, a fountain there, etc.

I’ve found that central Europe is not an easy place to eat if you don’t eat a lot of beef or pork, such as myself. It is the definite staple here. Heres’s an example of cultural unawareness: I ordered a mixed salad, expecting what I’d get back home.  Instead, it was (a very tasty) potato with kraut salad.  One leaf of lettuce and one wedge of tomato used as garnish.  We encountered a little sticker shock upon arrival.  (Prague is v. cheap–a full meal for two including drinks and appetizer and tip costs about $15, if you stay away from the tourist traps.  Beer is incredibly cheap at around $1.75 a pint.) Really, the only cheap food places here are the wurstel stands–frankfurters, etc,– although beer is also inexpensive.  I’ve never eaten so many hotdogs in a period of 4 days. Fortunately, chocolate is exceptionally cheap, so I’ve been consoling myself with lots of that.

The only down part has been the freezing wind that has chilled us to the bones.  The low to mid 50s temps. and slight rain wouldn’t be a big deal, if we weren’t frozen by the wind.  But, hardy travellers that we are, we aren’t allowing a little inclement weather to slow down our journies.

Off to Venice and warmer weather tomorrow.
Hope all is well with you and yours.
love,
Rita and Paul