Archives for posts with tag: Europe

7022253-_Vienna

In response to The Daily Post’s writing prompt: “Take a Chance on Me.” – What’s the biggest chance you ever took? Did it work out? Do tell!

This one is sort of a “no duh” for me.

My freshman year at the University of Delaware was less than stellar. As I entered into my sophomore year I realized I wasn’t very happy there. I had few friends and felt as if I really didn’t fit into this semi-Southern, über Preppy atmosphere. Remember, I’m a loud-mouth from New Jersey.

I was seriously looking into transfering when I saw a flyer in the student center for the study abroad program. You could travel to Costa Rica, London, or Vienna. That sounded wonderful to me, so I attended the interest meeting. After gathering all the financial/travel information, I called my parents and ran the idea past them.

Dad was willing to let me go, but only if I went to Vienna because it was a hop, skip & jump to his homeland of Czechoslovakia. If I got accepted into the program it was decided that I would spend 3 weeks after the semester at my cousin Stello’s house in what is now Slovakia. I was so excited at the prospect of travelling to Europe and attending school! Seeing art and culture outside of the Eastern US was a dream come true!

But I was also scared. And I got more and more scared as the spring semester drew near. There were times when I seriously doubted whether or not I should go. I was going to be totally alone for months…no trips home, no familiar faces, and let’s not forget the language barrier. I was required to take at least one German course before leaving.

There was also a problem with credits. It turns out that the courses I would be studying while in Vienna would largely not apply to my degree. So it would almost be like a waste of the entire semester, except for the fact that I would be having a life-changing cultural experience.

Lots of the other students attending the program were equally miffed about the credits not being applicable and complaints were lodged. The University was going to decide if an acception could be made, and that’s when I made the deal with myself.

If the University allowed the credits to be used, I would go. If not, I’d back out.

Eight weeks later, with a month of German under my belt, I flew out of JFK airport on my way to Vienna. It was the scariest thing I’d ever done, but to this day, the most rewarding.

Not only because of all the sights I saw, and the people I met, but because I really learned that I could stand on my own. I could manage my own money, I could make my own travel plans, and I could get along in a city where I didn’t really know the language all that well.

I came back to school a junior, and a much different person. I had travelled. I was worldly. And the folks around me? They had spent their spring in Newark, Delaware. I’d been in Vienna, and Rome and Basel.

Oh, yeah, and Czechoslovakia. I really learned how to stand on my own there.

And here’s my parting advice…if your school offers this opportunity, TAKE IT.

tracy1

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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.

Where's Slovie?

Where’s Slovie?

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.

Stello Arrives

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.

slide022_0003In the summer of 1980 my father took me and my sisters on a 3 week trip to Czechoslovakia. I had just finished my sophomore year in high school, and had only been on a commercial plane once before when my friend John and his family took me on a vacation to Jamaica. That’s a blog post in itself…

We were excited to embark on this adventure. My father was going to show us the town he was born in as well as the sights of his homeland. Plus we were going to be introduced to members of our family that we had never met before. And the fact that we were traveling behind the iron curtain added a sense of danger and intrigue.

There was lots of prep work to be done…passports, visas, converters for electricity…oh, and mixed tapes. Lots and lots of mixed tapes. We didn’t know what we would find on the radio over there – we envisioned pop music polkas or accordion themed disco flooding the Slovak airwaves. We had a small boombox to take along, and agreed to take turns listening to music.

Our night time flight on OK! Airlines was uneventful as far as flights go, but my father was fun to watch. He was excited…no, damn near giddy to be heading back to his homeland. When the stewardess brought us our morning meal, he leaned over to us and said in a sing-song voice, “Look, girls! A continental brrrrrreakfast!”

My dad actually rolled his r. We were landing in Prague soon and he was in a glorious mood. It was a side of him I rarely saw, but immediately decided I liked. That mood? It dissipated quickly when we went through customs.

Customs in a block country is no picnic. The guards checking our suitcases went through everything. Our underwear was rifled through, our boxes of maxi pads were opened and inspected (much to my embarrassment and horror) and my father, a health nut, had a much ‘splainin’ to do about the throngs of vitamins he had packed. With nervous sweat soaking through the back of his sport coat, he was frantically yelling “VEETAMINY! VEETAMINY!!!!! as the guards angrily shook the bottles in his face.

Once through customs we were met by a man with a van who had made the long trip to Prague to pick us up and bring us to Gajary, my dad’s home town. We could not make the trip in one day, and we stopped to spend the night in some small town along the way. I remember the quaint cobblestone streets, and getting dinner in an upstairs restaurant. We spoke or read no Slovak, so my dad ordered for us. I remember eating a wedge salad dressed with a simple lemon dressing and thinking that it was the most wonderful salad I’d ever had. The main course was some form of meat and potatoes – simple fare that was marvelously good. My sister, after finishing her meal stated, “I could go for another plate of that!”

THE FOOD

That would be a sentiment we echoed often on our three week adventure. The food we sampled on our trip was simply wonderful, and not just the food we ate at restaurants. The food served to us at our cousin’s homes, and at the homes of the dozens of other relatives we met, was all homey, comforting, and very satisfying.

Slide0801_0103

Lunch with Stello in Bratislava

I recall one day that we devoted to visiting friends and relatives who lived in the area. Each home we entered had a full spread of meats, cheeses, hard-boiled eggs, salads and pastries. Not realizing we’d be offered this fare at every single house, my sisters and I loaded up at house #1. By house #6 we were stuffed, yet still forced to sample something so as not to offend our distant relative who had gone to the trouble of laying out meats, cheeses, salads and pastries.

My cousin Gitka made a kick ass potato salad that I simply could not get enough of. Cousin Anna kept us well stocked with cookies, and we drank pitcher after pitcher of my cousin Stello’s home made wine. But we were not without some American favorites – my dad and Stello were able to procure us bottles of Coke and Snicker’s bars.

THE TRAVEL

We didn’t just hang out and eat the whole trip. We took a couple of days and travelled to the Tatra Mountains. We rode a gondola to the top of the Tatras which I would have enjoyed more if I weren’t so cold. I was not prepared for how cold it was at the top of the mountains, and all I had on was a thin terry cloth shirt. I went to get a cup of hot tea at the little restaurant they had, but the water was only luke warm at best, so it did little to ward off the stages of hypothermia I was soon going to succumb to.

We also visited a cave that wound up getting my cousin Stello very sick. You had to climb up a series of fairly steep hills to get to the cave. Once at the top you were pretty much a sweaty mess, then you entered the cool, dark cave for the tour. Do the math. I’m surprised we didn’t all get sick.

Slide0801_0047

After the cave expedition we had lunch at a restaurant at the bottom of the hill. My sister thought it would be fun to steal a beer mug from the restaurant. So while dad & Stello were paying the bill, we jammed the mug into her handbag. A waiter must have witnessed us doing this dastardly deed, because our walk to our car turned into a run for our lives as we were chased down by the angry waiter. Dad and Stello didn’t ask questions – they just hauled ass and got us out of there.

We giggled over this caper for years.

We also visited a spa town where one of Stello’s daughters was spending a part of her summer vacation. The only part of this excursion I remember was being assaulted by some drunk Slovak on the street. While we were walking along the sidewalk he lumbered up to me, said something in Slovak to me and grabbed my boob. Hard.

I was mortified, (my sisters were hysterical) and Stello came close to beating him to a pulp. I spent the next hour brooding in the back seat of the car beside smirking sisters with a throbbing titty.

THE BOOM BOX

I can’t talk about the travel without talking about the boom box. We passed the long hours in the car listening to the mixed tapes we brought along. The deal was to take turns, but man, when one of my sisters picked a tape that I didn’t care for, it was 90 minutes of hell.

My sister Judy had a Joanie Mitchell tape. While I can take a song of hers here and there, an hour of listening to her folksy, too-high voice while crammed in the back seat of Stello’s small blue car was close to maddening. I was thankful when the tape broke halfway through our trip. My sister insisted it was sabotage…

I can’t remember one song that I brought along. Isn’t that funny? Not one. But I do remember hearing “Psycho Killer” and “Sultans of Swing,” courtesy of my sister’s tapes, over and over again. I can’t hear “Sultans of Swing” without thinking of that trip and Stello’s car.

Even is there was no music playing (dad would demand radio silence during intervals so he and Stello could talk), it was wonderful to watch the scenery. Each little town we’d drive through held my interest – the buildings and the people; who were they? What did they do for a living? Sometimes we’d spot a small castle nestled into a picturesque mountain side. Other times, we’d drive through a small cluster of homes – not even a town – and I’d wonder what life inside those walls was like.

JOE, JOSHKO, STUK & THE HOTEL MALACKY

When we weren’t combing the Slovak countryside, we were getting to know our cousins. They were fairly far removed – 3rd or 4th cousins – I’m not even sure what the genealogical connection is. My sisters and I were introduced to my cousin Gitka’s children, Joe, Lubka & Peter. While Peter was a bit young, Joe and Lubka were around our same ages.

Joe was urged by our parents to take us American girls out on the town. This was somewhat of a difficulty for him; we spoke no Slovak – he, no English. What was a fellow to do with three girls he could barely communicate with? So, he rounded up a few of the local fellows to act as escorts for us, and to give him someone to talk to.

Joe was mine…we sort of hit it off right off the bat. My sister Judy got paired up with Joshko (pronounced Yoshkoh) who was tall and fairly attractive. Wendy got stuck with Stuk (pronounced Shtook) who was short and not so attractive. We headed out of town to party down at the disco in the basement of the Hotel Malacky.

My first warning bell was the fact that they locked you in. Yes – once the quota for the night was reached…maximum capacity…they locked the doors and forced you to dance the night away to stale disco intermingled with the occasional polka. And the drinks? Red wine mixed with Pepsi. I think you could order other stuff, but that’s what most people drank.

It was an interesting experience to be sure. We were Americans in a block country – we may as well have been celebrities. People stared at us and came up to our table to ask the fellas who we were. I remember I wore a white ribbon around my neck during that trip – for no good reason – and girls would ask if that was the American fashion.

But I felt bad for my sisters that night. While my Joe was a perfect gentleman, Joshko and Stuk got pretty drunk and kept making the moves on my sisters. They tried to coax them with wine and loaves of bread they got from the kitchen – it made me wonder what it took to get one of the local girls. While they were fending them off, I was starting a little Slovakian romance.

Slide0801_0096

mladá láska

Ah Joe. We never did anything but kiss…I was only a sophomore in high school at the time, but it made what could have been a boring trip very romantic and fun. We would spend the days drinking wine huddled over a Slovak/English dictionary trying our best to communicate with one another. Back in the states I wasn’t known for my luck with the fellas – I never got asked to school dances, and never got asked out on dates. Me? I had to come to a block country to find love…typical.

Joe and I wrote to each other over the years; I still have a stack of his letters in a box somewhere. I’ll tell you, Google translate would’ve come in handy back then! We saw each other again during the summer of 1984 when I studied in Vienna for a semester. Then, a few years later, I got news that he had gotten married and I have to admit it made me a tiny bit sad – he was my first real romance. We are Facebook friends now, and exchange greetings a few times a year.

When our 3 weeks came to an end, I was sad to go. I’d grown to love my new found Czechoslovakian family. We had to drive back to Prague, and cousin Stello decided to bring his two sons along. It was a thrilling trip for them to make, and we were glad for a few more days spent with our cousins.

Pissed off in Prague...

Walking in Prague

Slide0801_0064

Is this the only shirt I brought with me?

After a day or two in Prague we flew home. A funny thing happened when we landed at JFK – our high school guidance counselor was working as a customs agent over the summer and just happened to be assigned to our flight. He brought us to the front of the line and waved us through without opening a single bag. And you know what? He was there when I got back from Vienna four years later. Isn’t that bizarre?

I’ll always have fond memories of that trip to Czechoslovakia. Not only was it fun to bond with my sisters in a strange new land, but I saw a side of my father that was so entirely different than how he was at home. Come to think of it, he was almost always that guy when he was on vacation. I totally get that.

rolls

Have you ever fallen victim to the repetitive meal? When I was a kid I came home from school and told my mother that I enjoyed the baloney and mustard sandwich she made me for lunch. You know what that resulted in? A baloney and mustard sandwich every day for what was to be a very, very, long time.

I no longer care for baloney. Or tuna on rye. Somehow both of these meals have earned the distinction of “never again” in my gastronomic book. I simply ate them one time too many.

But certain foods, no matter how often consumed, never reach that status. A case in point? My daily Viennese breakfast.

When living in Vienna during the latter half of my sophomore year, our “meal plan” consisted of $5 a day and complimentary breakfast provided by our lodgers, the wonderful Pension Pertschy. Each morning, I would head down to the dining room and was served a pot of tea, and a basket of rolls with butter and jam. If you were in the mood for eggs or pastry, you had to pay more.

Many times over the course of my 3+ month stay at Pertschy’s, classmates of mine would opt to pay the extra schillings for eier mit speck (eggs & bacon), but I never did. Part of it was sheer frugality…why pay extra for eggs when you are being handed a free meal? For some reason, I’d grown fondly accustomed to my morning fare.

The rolls were fantastic – crusty, light and always warm. I’d slather them with butter and a touch of jam, and sip my tea while gazing at the other diners, and my sometimes rowdy, sometimes hung over, group of classmates. Then it was off to school at the Austro-American Institute, or if it was a weekend, perhaps the Stadtpark or shopping.

Day after day, this was my breakfast. And I never tired of it. Ever.

Maybe it’s the Jersey girl in me. I’ve lived in a few different states, but Jersey/New York is the only place I’ve been able to walk into a deli in the morning and grab a buttered roll. One gas station on Rt. 4 used to have buttered rolls wrapped in wax paper in a basket next to the cash register. If you got there too late, they were sold out.

From time to time I think back with nostalgic longing to those breakfasts at Pertschy’s, so far removed from the typical American college breakfast of sugary cereal or powdered eggs. It just felt so European.

Next? I’ll tell you how I managed to eat both lunch and dinner on five bucks a day.

Where’s Slovie?

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.

Stello Arrives

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.