Why do we travel?
I was wondering that very thing at 6:30 AM on Sunday morning, struggling down a rainy street in Vienna with a cardboard bike box balanced on top of a rolling suitcase as we slowly marched to the subway station. I was also carrying a bright yellow, very giant, rubberized messenger bag that weighed a good twenty pounds, and then on my chest I’d strapped another, smaller rucksack. Even the street people gazed at me in pity.
However, once seated in the extra-economy window seat of a refurbished Aer Lingus jet, I figured I’d make a list of things that happened during my travels, memories that, whether fleeting or permanent, made this such an amazing adventure.
• Black bread. Eat it with butter and plain yogurt and water for lunch, breakfast, and at least one dinner. Whoever said bread and water was prisoner’s fare has never eaten black Austrian bread baked with nuts. I carried a giant loaf of it onto the plane with me, and while my poor fellow travelers were agonizing between the chicken or the beef, I was happily chewing mouthful after mouthful of the staff of life. BTW, it will make you regular for days and days and days.
• City Bike rental. Yasuko and I rented City Bikes, pedaled from our youth prison to downtown, ditched the bikes, had delicious coffee, and used up what was left of our subway tickets for a quick trip home. Total cost for City Bike rental? 1 € registration fee, and free for any trip less than an hour. Winning and fun AF!
• Coffee. You can have ten cups of coffee a day in Vienna and never get tired of it. I did. Cappuccino with schlagobers, melange with schlagobers, schlagobers with schlagobers … it never gets old. Why? Because schlagobers is Viennese for “whipped cream.”
• Pre- and postprandial walks. Every time we went to dinner, we walked 20-30 minutes there and 20-30 minutes back. It was always cold and often raining. When’s the last time you walked anywhere in the rain? It makes arriving so much better.
• The asshole at U.S Preclearance in Dublin. Yep, your government stations American immigration assholes in foreign countries to check your passport and behave like complete jerks. Hope you feel safer! It’s such a better use of tax dollars than, say, housing for the homeless or more pay for teachers.
• Getting ripped off. At a place where they spotted us as obvious tourist wankers, they gave part of our change in fake Polish (?) coinage, which looks almost exactly like euros. D’oh!
• Falafel kebabs. We devoured them in the Turkish kebab shop while watching the Turks sit around and talk animatedly, perhaps arguing about who was going to give us the fake coins.
• Riding in the countryside. Getting lost, asking for directions, being completely confounded by the Lower Austrian dialect; these are some of my favorite things.
• Obnoxious American. Dude was decked out in his LA baseball cap, LA jacket, LA neck chain, and Darth Vader backback harangue the ticket agents in Vienna, in Dublin, and again on the plane for a better seat or a free upgrade, and watching him get sent to his room without any supper.
• The shaving shop at 7 Krugerstrasse. Ogling the incredible array of straight razors and shaving creams and other manly articles for manly facial care.
• Spending money. You can’t take it with you!
• Shipping success! That incredible feeling of taking your bike out of the cardboard box and realizing that nothing is broken.
• The flop. Getting to your hotel and flopping down onto the clean white sheets and puffy pillow.
• Smells. Going down into the subway in the morning and getting hit with that aroma of fresh pastries, freshly baked bread, and hot coffee. Then ordering some.
• Politics. Chatting with my son’s father-in-law about Austrian politics and trying to explain why we elected an insane bully ignoramus as president. And failing.
• Nodding. Standing at the bar in Radler Treff drinking coffee and pretending to understand what the guy was saying.
• Wandering. Ambling through the mall in Lugner City and watching some kind of public concert where everyone was wearing traditional Austrian clothing and playing lights-out brass band music. Viennese = Musicians.
• Mechanical success. Not getting one single flat or having one single mechanical. Not having my headset come loose while descending and have the steering fail. Not losing my brakes.
• Familiarity. Going down the same roads two or three times and starting to feel like I know them.
• Hypocrisy. Bitching about how much crap I brought, much of which I didn’t even wear, and then somehow coming home with even more crap, and cursing as I tried to make the zipper close.
• Street life. Listening to the drunks fight and yell and stumble out on the street late at night.
• Disappearing money. Being astonished at how quickly 100 euros seems to evaporate.
• Sobriety. Falling into bed dead dog tired, but awakening totally refreshed and with no hangover.
• Gluttony. Realizing that no matter how much I ate, it wasn’t going to be enough.
• Buildings. The Euro Magic of pedaling through streets lined with amazing architecture, where virtually every home is a work of art.
• Crookedness. Not getting anywhere in a straight line; thinking I was going one way but actually going completely the opposite way.
• Bike path I. The Donau Canal bike path. Fuggin’ awesome.
• Bike Path II. The Donau Insel. Even more bike path and even more fuggin’ awesome.
• Bike Path III. The bike path that rings the Old CIty. It’s super easy to use, you just have to slow down and pay attention to the markings and not run over clueless tour groups and wankers on Segways.
• Meet-and-beat. Meeting some of the local bikers. Cyclists speak a universal language, and it’s the word “Hammer!”
• Old World elegance. Cafe Hawelka and Cafe Diglas and Cafe Diglas and Cafe Sperl. Snooty AF, but you won’t regret the coffee, and no one cares if you sit there for hours.
• Cobblestones! Fun AF!
• Disappointment. Initiating conversation with dozens of people and having almost all of them answer in English, or worse, having them switch to English the minute you don’t immediately understand everything. Takes you down a few pegs every single time.
• Feeling Germanic. Those conversations where everything was perfect, and the other person let you struggle a little, patiently, and then you got on top of the gear and felt like you were actually speaking German.
• Trainventures. Taking the wrong train. Realizing it ten stops later.
• Shopgasm. Wien Mitte. It’s bustling like Tokyo, super fun and trendy.
• New dining experience. Vapiano. Italian food you will love, and a very unique method of ordering. There are no wait staff; you go directly to the chef and tell her what you want, she makes it for you, and you carry it back to your table.
• Holy Grail. Joseph Brot. My favorite restaurant in Vienna because after you finish you can take home a giant 2-lb. loaf of organic black bread.
• Bike shops everywhere. Cycloholic, Road Bike, and a zillion more, everything from high-end boutiques to general service shops located along the bike path, no less.
• Gaelic. Chatting with the Aer Lingus flight attendant about all of the Gaelic in the Dublin airport and whether anyone actually spoke it. “Not many people, not fluently anyway.”
• Book wormism. Reading my book on the history of Vienna. “Wow,” is all I have to say about that, along with “What a horrifically shameful history of pogroms and seemingly gleeful participation in the Holocaust, for which they don’t appear to have come to grips with.”
• History. Learning about “Red Vienna” and the city’s commitment to social democracy; seeing all of the public housing for ordinary people, where it’s part of the city’s mission to provide affordable housing, not let landlords control the most basic human need after food and clothing.
• GPS? Nein, danke! Maps. Reading lots of maps of Vienna, Lower Austria, and Austria.
• Menu choices. No matter where we went, it seemed like there were plenty of non-meat options on the menu. Even the Austrian Gasthaus, that redoubt of beef and pork, had meatless options. And I took ’em.
• Bookstores. So many and in such variety. I loved Thalia in Wien Mitte, but they were everywhere, and what was even more awesome is that so many people were reading in public.
• Rain. Okay, this is probably a SoCal thing, but it’s really cool to hang out, at least for a little while, in a place where it rains.
And finally, of course, that feeling of dropping your bags in the middle of the floor and happily sighing, “I’m home.”
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