In response to The Daily Post’s writing prompt: “The Kindness of Strangers.”
I am reposting a blog from 2012 where I wrote about a trip from Vienna, Austria to Bratislava, Czechoslovakia.
Where I got lost.
And needed lots of help.
I got it too, from a gaggle of selfless Slovaks.
Abandoned in Bratislava
As you may have read in an earlier post, I spent a semester in Vienna back in 1984. Before my father would agree to send me, he made me promise to spend some time with my relatives in Gajary, Czechoslovakia after the semester was over. The story of my trip there is a long one, but I feel the need to document it for my two daughters – perhaps it can teach them a few things later in life.
I was both excited and nervous about this excursion. I had a blast the last time I was there, but that was with my dad, who could translate everything for us. Plus my sisters were along, and we had loads of fun cracking wise at some of the oddballs we saw.
This time I was going alone – for 3 long weeks. I was hoping my German would help me some; Bratislava, the city I was initially travelling to, was a popular shopping destination for many Viennese looking for bargains. My Slovak was limited. I knew the basic salutations and “good”, but other than that my mastery of the language consisted of the words “school,” “stupid ass,” and “shit.” I had a Slovak/English dictionary and a marginal ability with charades. That was as good as it was going to get.
Planning the trip was a job in itself. I sent several letters to my cousin Stello, who I was to stay with, regarding my travel dates and mode of transportation. In addition to that, I had to acquire a Visa to get into the country. A Visa is a document which in essence gives you permission to be there. Czechoslovakia was still a communist country at that time so having this paperwork was mandatory.
The Quest for the Visa
To get the Visa I had to go to the Czechoslovakian Embassy, which was rather far from my humble home on Habsburgergaße. Trying to save money, I took the subway to Mariahilfer Straße, which the embassy was located off of. As it turns out, this was a dud of an idea. Mariahilfer Straße is about 2 miles long, and I think I had to walk 85% of those two miles. Oh well, I looked at it as an adventure. Unfortunately, I had to repeat this adventure several times. The Czech embassy is very persnickety when it comes to their paperwork, and they found several unsatisfactory elements to my documentation which had to be corrected before I was to be granted with my Visa.
One bonus to my trip up and down Mariahilfer Straße was the discovery of the baggage tote. During my pilgrimages up and down this two mile stretch of stores, I noticed many women toting their parcels on these handy metal frames with wheels. Thinking of all the baggage I had to lug from Vienna to Czechoslovakia, the purchase of one of these devices seemed like an idea bordering on genius.
The Road to Gajary is a Bumpy One
With my semester coming to a close, I sent one last letter to cousin Stello reminding him of my arrival time, date and train number. I spent my last days at Pension Pertschy gathering up my belongings, and cramming them into the suitcases and duffel bags I had arrived with. This proved to be difficult as I had bought a thing or two while in Vienna. They were fairly bulging with my belongings. On my last night I cleverly strapped them all to my handy baggage toter and went to bed dreaming of an effortless commute to the old country.
Dr. Scholls – I loved these things.
The day dawned clear and bright. It was a gorgeous day. I dressed in a purple sundress with small white polka dots that my mother had made for me, and slipped on my Dr. Scholls. I noticed that the leather strap on one shoe was tearing, but all my other shoes were packed tightly away, so I shrugged it off. The leather was thick and it would hold for the short amount of walking I had to do.
As I headed down the Graben to the subway, the cobblestones made pulling my bags difficult. The model I had bought was one of the least expensive, and was most likely not meant to hold 112 pounds worth of clothing, shoes, and mementoes. It wobbled drunkenly from side to side as I struggled to pull it up the street. After travelling the 2 blocks, my hand was throbbing and my palm was turning red. At least I was at the subway and I could ride comfortably to the train station.
Fahrschein Fuck Up
The subway system in Vienna ran on an honor system. You were supposed to buy a ticket, or a “fahrschein,” but unlike New York, there are no token operated turnstyles to go through. You simply pocketed your ticket and boarded the train. You could in theory ride for free. But you never knew when the fahrschein police were going to board the train and ask to see your ticket. In the 4 months I had lived in Vienna, I had only seen these officers a handful of times, and I always had my ticket. That’s not to say I didn’t ride for free. I did plenty of times, but it was late at night when they were less likely to hop aboard. I didn’t ride the train a whole lot during rush hour times, when they were most likely to search for fare evaders.
This might be the exact subway entrance referenced in this woeful tale
This particular morning as I approached the escalator to the subway, I realized with a sinking heart that the farschein I had bought the night before was in the pocket of the pants I had been wearing, and was now therefore was now packed securely away. The thought of unhooking all of my bags, and digging through numerous suitcases until I found those pants and that ticket on a busy corner in Vienna did not appeal to me in the least. I decided to risk it and ride the subway without it.
Roughly 94 seconds into my ride a fahrschein policeman entered the train and all the blood in my body swiftly pooled into my feet. As he approached me, I struggled with shaking hands to undo the ropes and cords that held my bags in place in an effort to locate that ticket buried inside the pocket of a pair of jeans. I heard a voice boom “fahrschein, bitte!” and looked up to see the officer looming over me. I began to explain in German pointing hurriedly at my bags that I had indeed purchased one, but had packed it by mistake and I would need just a moment to find it.
In reality, the only German I got out was something like “Ja haben Herr, ich eine fahrschein aber gekauft but I packed it like a jerk and I really never try to ride for free, I swear, and if you just give me a minute I’m sure I can find it, and I’m leaving the city today, see? I have all these bags, and I just need to get to the train station but everything is packed and I really never ride without a ticket, I swear this is my first time, and my shoe is breaking, look? see? and I’m sure I can find it just hang on a minute.”
During this panicked soliloquy I also began to cry. I must have made quiet a spectacle on the crowded subway car, because after a minute or so the officer waved an annoyed hand at me, muttered something grumpy in German, and left our car. I would’ve collapsed on the seat if there was one available. Instead I clutched onto the handrail thankful that I only had a stop or two more to go.
Treacherous Train Station Trek
When I arrived at the stop for the train station, I got off the subway and proceeded to make several wrong turns in the subway station. I realized with horror as I ascended the escalator that the train station was across 7 or 8 tracks of railroad – tracks that I would have to lug my 112 pound toter over. I did not trust my navigation skills to head back down to the subway station and attempt to find the correct escalator. I was already spooked from my fahrschein encounter, and it was getting too close to my departure time to fool around. So I began the process of hoisting my bags up and over several sets of railroad track.
The tracks of my tears
I knew what I was doing was most likely against some sort of train station policy, and dangerous to boot. But I was hungry, sweaty and emotionally drained; plus I was beginning to worry that I was going to miss my train and be stuck with nowhere to stay in Vienna. The closest distance between two points is straight across, tracks or no tracks, so I went for it. My shoe was tearing even more and was getting dangerously close to coming apart all together, and my hand was showing the early signs of a bruise from the baggage toter handle. At this point I was not in the mood to find a more appropriate path.
Walking in Someone Else’s Shoes…Well, Riding Actually
Once inside the train station, I found my train, and boarded with a sigh. I had meant to stop and get something to eat, but I ran out of time. My stomach grumbled as the train rolled out of Vienna. A woman came and joined me in my car. We smiled at each other and I continued to listen to my walkman. After a while, she opened a box and pulled out a pair of shoes. She motioned for me to try them on. I thought this to be odd, but didn’t want to offend her, so I tried them on. They were hideous strappy things, but I smiled and said “good” in slovak. She asked me in German if I would wear them for a little while, until we crossed the border. I realized that she had most likely bought them in Vienna and did not want to have to pay the duty tax on them once we crossed the border into Czechoslovakia. I tucked my broken sandals into my bag and agreed to wear them.
Dealing with the border guards was one scary affair. They searched through everything. No amount of smiling or politeness could sway them. I do remember sticking my head out the window and smiling to some of the young slovak soldiers at the border. They smiled and waved back, but the ones required to check your belongings did not partake in any funny business.
My paperwork was in order, and they figured the shoes were mine and after what seemed like an hour, the guards left our compartment. Once we were on our way again, I slipped off the shoes and handed them back to the woman. She thanked me and offered me a sandwich, which I eagerly accepted. I don’t remember what was on it…some sort of meat and butter on a roll, but I scarfed that thing down, and it was good.
Final Destination, or so I Thought
When we arrived in Bratislava, I was filled with excited anticipation to see my cousins, who I had not seen in 4 years. I said goodbye to my travelling companion, and made my way to the train platform with my cumbersome baggage tote in tow. I scanned the crowd for a sign of Stello, but did not see any faces that I recognized. As the crowed departed, I was left pretty much alone on the platform. A small kernel of panic began to bloom in my stomach.
I decided to head to the main terminal. Maybe they had forgotten the train number and were waiting in the main lobby of the station.
Once I reached the main lobby, I realized with dismay that nobody was here to greet me. I sank down on a bench and wondered what I was going to do. I decided to just wait. Maybe they had car trouble. Maybe there was traffic. After an hour or so I decided to try and call them. Dad had given me some emergency numbers to call in case something happened in Bratislava, but I had no money for the phone. I only had Austrian currency on me. I found a train station employee who spoke German and asked for help. He took me to a director of sorts who after hearing my problem, let me use his phone. I got no answer at any number I tried.
Clang, clang, clang went the trolley
At this point the director came up with an amazing plan. I should try to get to my relatives. This involved taking a train to Malacky, and then a bus to Gajary. Why I agreed to this plan I can’t remember. With all I had been through so far that day coupled with my lack of a substantial meal, I wasn’t thinking clearly. But first, he concluded, I would need to go into Bratislava and exchange currency. I don’t recall how I got the fare for the trolley – perhaps he paid for it, but I was presented with a ticket for the trolley and a pat on the back. The director allowed me to keep my cumbersome baggage in his office, so there was that to be thankful for. I turned and headed out of the office to embark on my perilous journey into Bratislava.
Someone to Watch Over Me Slovak Style
I got off at the predetermined stop and hunted around for a bank. I found several, but all were closed. It was noon and everyone was off for lunch. This startled me because that is when 95% of you average working folk can find the time to go to the bank. I sat on a bench or wandered around in a hungry daze until the banks reopened. Once they did, I could not find anyone who A) could speak German or English, or B) would exchange any money for me. It seems there are specific rules involved with how much you need to exchange which involves your visa and some documentation from the police, which I did not have. Dejected and tired, I left to go back to the train station.
The infamous purple dress
I had reached my breaking point. I stood at the trolley stop, which was on an island in the middle of an busy road. Here I was, tanned and pony tailed, dressed in a purple sundress with white polka dots, in nearly broken sandals as cars whizzed by oblivious to my desperate situation. I felt so utterly lost and alone, that I just started to cry. A man approached me and spoke to me in slovak. I mumbled “I don’t understand,” another key phrase I had learned, and asked if he spoke German. He said, “A little.”
I was elated. Finally, someone who could help. I brokenly described my situation to him. He promptly lead me to a bank, and after much persuading with the stubborn teller, got a small amount of money exchanged for me. It would be enough to buy my tickets to Malacky and then to Gajary. He then got me on a trolley, took me back to the train station, and spoke to the director. He purchased my ticket to Malacky for me. He then sat me down on a bench with an ice cream cone. I was so thankful. He had taken control. He saw I was in trouble, and had taken the time out of his day to help me. I was so very thankful.
It was at this point I remembered my emergency phone numbers. I asked if he could try to call them to see if anyone answered. He was able to reach some friend or distant relative on the list, and it was determined they would come and get me until my cousins could be located. This was such a huge relief to me…the thought of travelling by myself to Gajary seemed as impossible as walking a tightrope across the Grand Canyon.
Nice to Meet You – Please Save Me
Before long a kind looking older gentleman came to pick me up. I had never met nor heard of him before, but I was sure glad he was here for me now. As I began to leave with this friend/relative that I did not know, I thanked my rescuer profusely and said good-bye.
A meal similar to the one that I greedily I stuffed down my hole
I was taken to an apartment where I was introduced to this man’s wife, seated at a table, and stuffed with food. Boy did I eat. Salami, bread, boiled eggs, cheese, pickles, more salami and then cake and tea. Once my feast was over, the wife took me to a bedroom, handed me a flouncey, old-fashioned nightgown and ordered into bed. It was only afternoon, but I did as she said. As I laid my head on the pillow, clutching little bear foot, who traveled all over Europe with me, I cried for the 3rd time that day. But this time it was with utter relief. I was safe. Someone was taking care of me. I was asleep within minutes.
When I awoke, it was to Stello’s voice in the other room. I got up and hurriedly dressed. When I came into the living room, Stello hugged me and began to apologize for all the trouble. He said they had gone to the bus station. In earlier letters to him I had talked about taking a bus from Vienna, but after further research settled on the train. He must’ve had the bus idea stuck in his head, though because he kept saying “I one hundred percent sure you say BUS.” Once I didn’t show at the bus station, they had gone to the train station, but by then I was wandering aimlessly around downtown Bratislava looking for a bank.
The whole ride back to Gajary, Stello proclaimed, “I one hundred percent sure you say BUS.” Once we reached his house he procured the last letter I sent him and frowned when it said “train.” I felt bad for him. I was certainly scared during my ordeal, but I can only imagine the panic Stello felt knowing I was out there alone and he couldn’t find me.
I had a great time during my stay there. About a week later, Stello handed me a postcard. It was addressed to me, c/o Stello in Gajary. That’s it. No street name, no zip code, and it got to me. That’s a small town for you. It was from my Bratislava rescuer. He just wanted to make sure I was ok and enjoying my visit. He included his address so I could write him back.
I still remember his name. It was Zoltan Egry. It must be a popular name because there are tons of them when you Google it. I wrote to him a few times, and I remember hearing from him last back in the 90’s or so. I may still be alive now. He was perhaps 35 or so when he helped me back in 1984, but that’s a guess. He could’ve been 50 for all I know. When you’re 19 everyone over 25 looks ancient.
In any case, I learned a few things that day. Life can go horribly wrong. But in most cases, you can handle it. You need to rely on your smarts, and sometimes on the help of others. You may have to do things that seem impossible to you, but they can be done and done by you. I learned I could take care of myself that day.