The kingdom of Sagan

Travel has its hierarchies, and the bus station is at the bottom, which for me is fitting. We crossed the street and immediately noticed a sign absent from Vienna’s well-heeled subway stops: “WARNING: PICKPOCKETS!” I instinctively grabbed my ass and shuffled my phone into my front pocket.

Outside the station sat a forlorn beggar, swarmed with the smells of panhandling and looking miserable beyond any words as he proffered his dog-eared paper cup. I emptied some change into it and he smiled but it was reflexive, glum, beatdown, sad.

Woodrow and I made a nest on the hard plastic chairs and stared at the timetables on the monitor. All the buses were going east, poor. Suitcases were ratty, people were tired, and unlike the rich travel of the Vienna airport, there were lots of kids herded by harried moms and gruff, tattooed dads. I counted ten languages, none of which was English or German until a worried lady came over and said, “Excuse me.”

The “I am weird” sign that follows me wherever I go illuminates as brightly in bus stops as airports.

“Yes?”

“Can you read English or German?”

“Yes.”

“We want to put our bags in the locker but don’t understand the instructions.”

The lady was Chinese and was the leader of a small band of travelers who each was traveling with a giant suitcase containing their own personal rock collection judging from the weight of each bag. I went over to the lockers, read the instructions in both languages and understood them in neither.

As we discussed the conundrum of How To Use A Bus Locker, a young woman with a massive fly tattooed on her thigh strolled up. The compound eyes were particularly large and fierce looking, and I couldn’t stop looking, which was the point.

“Here,” she said, reaching into the Chinese lady’s purse, fishing out some coins, and feeding them into the locker.

I wandered back to the chair and motioned Woodrow to follow me outside. On the street a dude on a skateboard began climbing up a wall like Spider-Man while his buddy videoed it. He got about thirty feet up in the air and began doing gymnastic tricks, the mis-calculation of any one of which would have plunged him to his death, resulting in the instant pillaging of his bags by the hopeful street people.

Bus bunnies

We got on the bus and the fighting started. Everyone had an assigned seat, including the guy sitting in Woodrow’s seat. “I think that’s my seat,” Woodrow said.

“Maybe, but there’s no assigned seating on the bus.”

A holler of languages sprouted up as people argued that yes, there was assigned seating, and tickets began to sprout as each person vied for his side of the argument. “How can it be assigned?” the man protested, waving his ticket.

“Look there!” an old woman with a giant plastic bag snapped. “You are number 20C. You should go to 20C and give the nice young boy his seat.”

The gruff man shrugged. “You know why I’m not sitting in 20C?” he said. “I’ll tell you why.”

“Yes, tell me why!” the old lad rejoined.

“Because there is no fucking 20C!”

This threw everyone into Next Level Tizzy, and people began counting back the rows, which ended at 19. The gruff Serbian dude smiled grimly. “See? Even in Serbia we can count to 20.”

By now the bus was mostly full and the Serb yelled at the driver. “There’s no Row 20, eh?”

“Not today,” the driver said as we pulled away from the curb. Woodrow had found an empty seat next to a very pretty young woman who turned out to be from Vienna but who was going to college in Bratislava. I nodded off to sleep. My neighbor was from Spain and uninterested in talking to Old Dude.

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Give us this day our daily bread for $35

Before we hit the bus station, though, we had breakfast at the high holy temple of Joseph Brot. This is the bakery of all bakeries, where the bread puts all other bread to shame. Woodrow smartly ordered the eggs Benedict, which had none of the famous bread. I say smartly because it was high calorie and filled with lots of stuff to keep your motor running through lunchtime.

I on the other hand ordered a piece of sourdough and butter. It was tremendous, but disappointing on two fronts. First, it was not nearly as good as the bread baked by my friend Lisa Barnes in Redondo Beach, who is about to open a bakery there in a few weeks. Second, the entire breakfast set me back $35 bucks, violating the principal rule of food: The pricier the food the less the enjoyment.

In other words, there is no enjoyment from a $500 gourmet meal. Zero, none. On the other hand, the enjoyment from a tasty $3 meal served on the streets of Kunming out of a plastic bag is virtually without compare. Worst of all, the slice of bread left me feeling starvey and ravenous long before the bus ride began.

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Wrong stop Sam

We got the to bus stop in Bratislava, or should I say we got to a bus stop in Bratislava? “Hurry, Woodrow!” I said, and we scurried off the packed bus. But we alit and I noticed we were the only ones who had gotten off. The bus pulled away.

“Are you sure this is the right stop, Dad?”

“Yes, absolutely,” i said, staring at the freeway, the tall buildings, and the ample nowhere that stretched out before us.

“Doesn’t really look like the touristy Old City you were telling me about, Dad.”

“It’s probably just over here,” I said.

After a couple of miles we came to a bridge, which thankfully had a pedestrian walkway, which meant more walking. As we crossed the Donau we could see Bratislava Castle on the hill and the distinct signs of approaching civilization, that is, other tourists.

Whatever we were expecting, Bratislava seemed to have it. The Old City was narrow, quaint, packed with gawky tourists just like us, and filled with row after row of open air tables at which people sat, ate, drank, and watched all the other people watching all the other people. We checked into the hotel and were suddenly overwhelmed by hunger from our trek. Across the way was a traditional Slovak Thai restaurant. We decamped there and ate. Might as well go native.

END

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2 thoughts on “The kingdom of Sagan”

  1. Loving your writing so much that now I’m contemplating getting into a bike falling down incident that I can blame on someone else just so I can get you to represent me.

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