Archives for posts with tag: Vienna

Me and cousin Stello, sophomore year, holding Little Bear Foot. Uff da, those posters alone are worth a blog post.

When I was a teenager, I snuck into New York City to go see Cheap Trick. We missed the last bus back to New Jersey and I was very, very late getting home. My father was so pissed at me that not only did he ground me, but he forbade me from participating in the school talent show.

But his punishment was all for naught. I wound up getting very sick and would’ve missed the show anyway. I think he felt really bad, because I woke up the next morning to find the most adorable bear I’d ever seen in bed a long with me – a bear mom said daddy had bought just for me.

The name on his tag read “Little Bear Foot” and I thought it was such a delightful name that I never changed it. I don’t know why, as a teenager, I would form such a strong attachment to a stuffed animal, but Little Bear Foot and I never parted ways.

He came to college with me, where in the fall of my sophomore year his nose fell off – fell off and disappeared. I searched my room for it, but that black plastic bear nose never turned up. So, not liking that Little Bear Foot could not smell, I sewed a button on in its place.

In the spring of that same sophomore year, Little Bear Foot travelled to Vienna with me. He sat on my bed at Pension Pertschy that whole semester, with the exception of when I spent spring break in Basel, Switzerland…then he was jammed into my backpack, his head sticking out through the zipper.

Yeah, that got me lots of looks and giggles at the train station.

At one point during my Vienna semester my roommates, pack of bitches that they were, kidnapped him for a few days. I mean, who does that? Ugh, I shudder to think of what vile things those girls did to him when I wasn’t around.

He then went to Czechoslovakia with me, back to Basel, and then to Luxembourg, where I flew back home to JFK.

And now he sits in my daughter’s bedroom. I’ve told them that is he belongs to me…he’s my bear, but they can let him hang with their stuffed animals. He’s matted and old – hell, so am I – but that bear and I went through a lot together. I hope he never gets thrown out or given away. I hope that one day some grandchild will hold and love just as I did – and maybe take him on a couple more adventures.

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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

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.

diplomat date

I’ve written in the past of my semester spent in Vienna, Austria – it was during the spring of my Sophomore year in college – 1984 to be exact. I was thin, and young, and single.

I had spent the afternoon at the Stadtpark enjoying the warmer weather and watching the ducks in the pond. I was heading back to the Graben, which was a large pedestrian mall off Stephansplatz, when a man approached me and asked in German for directions.

I began to answer him in German/English, when he smiled and said, “Hey, I’m American too.”

He was looking for the Graben, and since I was headed that way, I told him to follow me. We walked and talked, me explaining how I was a student studying abroad for the semester, he telling me how he was an American diplomat to Budapest visiting Vienna for the weekend.

Hmmm – a diplomat, eh? My somewhat sluttish roomates had had run ins with foreign diplomats in the past – big spending womanizers who got them drunk and tried to take advantage of them. In the case of my very loose roomies, they probably succeeded.

Once we reached the Graben he gestured to a cafe and asked if I would let him buy me a drink as thanks. I began to refuse, but he insisted, and I have to admit, I was enjoying his company. His name was Dave, and we sat outside and drank beer after beer, and got to know each other. I remember I was supposed to meet somebody to play volleyball that afternoon, and I totally blew it off.

It was getting late, and he asked if he could take me out to dinner. I have to admit, I was attracted to him. He was older…in his early thirties, and me? I was only 19. Not wanting our day to end, I agreed, and we set a time to meet a few hours later.

We dined at some outdoor restaurant in the city. I remember I didn’t eat much – I ordered a modest bowl of soup/stew. After dinner we went back to his car only to find it gone. He was furious because the car had diplomatic plates and shouldn’t have been towed.

We found out where the car had been towed to and took a cab there. He told me to not let on that he was fluent in German – we should just act like two Americans waiting for their car. It was a brilliant move.

We sat and watched while the two tow guys talked amongst themselves about how much to bilk us for in order to get the car back. Dave was listening, and understanding, every word exchanged between them. When they finally quoted him a rather large price, he began screaming at them in German. I don’t know what he said to them, but we were given our car back very quickly and without having to shell out as much as a single Groschen.

I was amazed by this man. The swarthiest men I’d seen at U of D wore plaid shorts with blazers and boat shoes at the football games. But this guy? He was as slicker than James Bond in my eyes.

It was very hard to say goodnight to him – he was headed back to Budapest the next day. As we stood outside the door to my Pension he asked me back to his hotel. It was very tempting, but I was a good girl.

I said no.

We exchanged addresses and wrote each other a few letters. I remember getting one on official US Diplomat stationery, which I thought was super cool at the time. I wonder if I still have that tucked away somewhere? I still have his photo in one of my old albums – it’s old and cracked. It’s hard to believe he sent it to me almost 30 years ago.

Diplomat

It’s one of those nights a girl just doesn’t forget…a whirlwind spring romance crammed into one magical, adventurous day. Do dudes remember days like that, or is that reserved for love-struck 19 year olds spending spring in Vienna?

Vintage-Ski-Styles

When I was growing up in northern New Jersey our town’s Rec Center used to hold ski trips. The kids would meet in front of the Rec Center, board a bus and head up to Vernon Valley for an afternoon of skiing. There were times where my mom and I, while running errands in town, would pass the Rec Center and I’d watch all the kids lined up with their bags and their skis waiting for the chartered bus to pick them up.

And I was so envious of them.

I grew up in a pretty wealthy town. We were not wealthy. We weren’t on skid row or anything, but there was no extra money to be spent on nonsense like lift tickets and ski rentals. So, Rec Center ski trips were out of the question for me. I acted like I didn’t care – like those kids were all assholes.

Some of them were. But a lot of them weren’t. They were kids I ate lunch with, or might walk part of the way home with. But they could afford to go on the Rec Center ski trips, and I couldn’t. So like any brooding teenager is apt to do, you viewed them with a cool loathing rather than blatant envy.

I did eventually ski though. While I might not have been able to go on the Rec Center trips, my Junior year in high school I became friends with this guy Paul whose parents had a house by Hunter Mountain. Ah Hunter… One of Upstate New York’s finest ski lodges.

For the next 6 years or so, Paul would call me on a random Thursday night and say, “We’re heading up to Hunter tomorrow…wanna come?” It wasn’t always winter either. Sometimes we went up in the summer and attended a festival at Hunter Mountain. Sometimes we just went up for some R & R. But if it was winter? We went skiing.

I was never a great skier, but I learned how to hold my own on the intermediate slopes. I only rode an actual ski lift a few times and dreaded/planned my departure from the chair the entire way up. My trip down would take my about 25 minutes as I would slowly shoosh my way down making a very wide, very horizontal path.

Susie Chapstick I was not.

I remember one weekend a whole bunch of us went up to Paul’s house. It had snowed gangbusters the night before so conditions were going to be phenomenal. The day turned out being a real keeper – temps hit the mid 50s; folks were skiing without coats. We went back to the house, put beach chairs in the snow and drank a case of beer.

It was AWESOME. I left Hunter in February with a sunburn.

My best ski trip ever though, was when I was in Austria. When I took my semester abroad, our school sent us on a ski trip to Semmering. Having not skied in a while, I decided to use the free ski instruction the lodge provided. Our teacher’s name was Norbert, which I found humorous…were his parents undecided between Norman and Burton?

Nobert? He turned out to be a real perv. While doing snowplow turns down the bunny slope, he would shoosh up behind me, wedge his skis between mine and push his pelvis against my ass in very firm, very suggestive manner. It wasn’t just me… he did it to all the girls. He got very drunk at the lodge party later that night and tried very hard to grind us a wee bit more on the dance floor.

But during that day, as I made my way down the slopes an hour south of Vienna, I thought about those kids that used to go on the Rec Center’s ski trips. I could never go, but here I was in Austria. AUSTRIA. On skis. Me.

Beats the hell out of Vernon Valley.

Julie-Andrews-is-trippin-ballz.When I was on my semester abroad in Vienna back in the 80s, we went on a few trips as a group to explore the region. One was to Prague, which I loved because I’d been there before, and because I’m Czechoslovakian. The other trip was to Salzburg, which I was very much looking forward to seeing.

Being a huge Sound of Music fan, I was excited about visiting the city where Maria and the kids pranced, danced and sang Doe a Deer. I wanted to stand in front of that large fountain, splash the water with my hand and start singing I Have Confidence.

Sadly, I didn’t get to do any of that thanks to my roommates. My evil, thoughtless roommates.

I was definitely the odd man out in our room. There were 4 of us in total, with personalities that stretched across the spectrum; me being a studious dud, and Sherri, who was a total party animal. Valerie and Lexi, the other two roomies, tended to gravitate towards Sherri more. I guess a lushy pothead was a tad more alluring than a girl with low self-esteem and a teddy bear.

Sherri and I had had our quarrels during the semester…she’d blast music while I was trying to study or bring icky dudes back to our room at all hours of the day and night. Not having much of a backbone, I’d let lots of incidents slide  where she was being clearly inconsiderate, but other times I’d fight back.

One fight in particular was the one that is the focus of this little tale. I had just showered, and was trying to study. Sherri was being loud and distracting – either telling a story about the last guy she banged, or dancing around the room to some very loud music. I’d asked them to be quiet, but was ignored. So, I picked up my books and went to sit out in the lounge right outside our door.

I studied for an hour or so, and when I went to go back into my room it was locked. I pounded on the door, but they would not open it. I could hear them laughing – they were such bitches. I hated the idea that they had gotten the better of me, and I knew the more I pounded, the more they’d laugh.

I couldn’t go down to the lobby and get a new key. This was a pension, not a traditional hotel, and the lobby was closed and unmanned. I laid on the couch for a few hours, but the hallway was cold and drafty. My head was wet from my shower earlier which didn’t help matters any. I finally got so cold that I knocked on the door of the girls who lived next to us, and asked if I could sleep on their floor. At least I was out of the drafty hallway.

I woke up the next day with a fever. I felt miserable – stomach cramps to beat the band and so weak it was hard to even stand up. Once my roommates finally opened the door I collapsed into bed and curled up in a ball. After a full day of laying in bed I was no better. As the rest of my group got ready for our trip to Salzburg, it was obvious I was not going to be able to go with them.

You know it’s funny – I can’t remember if my roommates showed any remorse at this point for having locked me out. Lexi and Valerie let our trip advisor know I was sick, which was something. He came to see me, and realizing how ill I was set up an appointment at a doctor. But Sherri could’ve cared less. I think she thought it was kind of funny, and she most likely glad I wouldn’t be along to annoy her.

The group left for Salzburg and I had to drag myself up, get dressed, and walk the streets of Vienna to find the doctor’s office. I remember not being able to sit up straight in the chair. I was slumped down and had one foot up on the waiting room table. The doctor came out to call me in and yelled at me for having my feet up. This wasn’t going to be fun.

It wasn’t. The examination was rough at the hands of this doctor who was clearly annoyed with me. After being diagnosed with an intestinal infection, I was given medication and sent home.

It took me weeks and weeks to fully recover. While the fever and constant cramping went away in a day or two, I was besieged by stomach problems for much longer. I’d be sitting somewhere minding my own business when suddenly my stomach would cramp very hard, and I’d need to be in a bathroom within 20 seconds. It was no fun.

I was really pissed at my roommates for doing this to me, especially Sherri. So when I saw the opportunity to get even, I took it.

Sherri got drunk one night. Super drunk. I suggested we head down the boy’s rooms to see what was going on. But first, I suggested we put some make up on. I told Sherri she was too drunk to do it herself and offered to put it on for her.

Well, I painted a huge black eye on her. I drew all over her face with eye liner, and I gave her a clown mouth of bright pink lipstick. Then, I lead her down to the boys room for drinks. She was so wasted she didn’t even think to look in the mirror.

That night she was the one being laughed at. After she saw what I had done to her face, she cried, and asked me how I could be so mean. Yeah, it was mean, but she had it coming, and I told her just that. I told her we were even now, and she should be thankful I didn’t march down the Graben and the Kartnerstraße for all of Vienna to laugh at.

The next day, when she was sober, we talked it out. I got some form of an apology from her for locking me out of the room, which I accepted, but deep down, didn’t forgive her for. Her careless actions had robbed me of my trip to Salzburg, and crippled me physically for weeks – as far as I was concerned she could drop dead.

The remainder of our stay in Vienna was okay; it was obvious that these girls were no friends of mine, and while we were cordial to one another, I was indifferent to their presence. We just sort of existed together.

But Sherri? I think she had a new found respect for me. She’d been able to push me over all semester, but I’d shown her that I could fight back, and fight back well. She had clearly underestimated me.

Besides which you see I have confidence in me.

Graben

In my previous post I talked about my daily breakfast during my semester abroad in Vienna. I also made mention of my “meal plan” – a paltry five bucks a day to cover lunch and dinner. Let me tell you, that measly amount forced you to make some very clever choices.

The money came to you in one lump sum each week. A hungry college sophomore with $35 in their hot little hands could lead to disaster, if you weren’t careful. Yes, there would be splurging; perhaps a meal out or a slice of Sacher torte. But the remainder would be squirreled away and spent very wisely. At least for me.

At first we would visit little local eateries, but it was near to impossible to stay within the $5 limit that way. Even eating at McDonald’s took you over your limit. So we had to get creative.

We talked to our director, who spoke to the folks who ran the Pension, and they set us up a makeshift kitchen. This consisted of a hot plate and a few pots, pans and utensils in a room the size of a broom closet. It was on the floor below ours which meant carrying your supplies down one flight and your finished meal back up again. There were two burners for close to 20 students…that kitchen saw lots of action.

With no refrigerators, we began eating mostly rice and pasta. I think I ate close to 17 pounds of rice seasoned with nothing more than soy sauce over those 3 months. After we became weary of dry goods, we figured out a way to keep some cold cuts, cheese & yogurt.

Our windows were of the variety that swung both in and out – there was a set that swung into the room, and a second set that swung out to the street and could be attached to the exterior of the building. Between the two windows was a space about 4 inches deep. That was our fridge.

A trip to the Billa (Vienna’s answer to Food Lion) on Singerstraße could net ham, rolls, rice, yogurt and beer for way less than our $5 limit. We might spend a third of our weekly allowance, but be able to eat 3/4 of our meals from that one shopping excursion. The rest of the money was earmarked for other stuff. Mainly Beer. Most weekends I hung out at this club called “The Atrium” where I drank liters of Pilsner and danced to every song from  “Thriller” and Lionel Ritchie’s “All Night Long.” Aah, the 80’s…

But I also had to save some of my food money for other things, like shampoo and tampons and film. See, most of the kids that were on the trip with me were from families who could easily afford the journey. Not me – I was a on a strict budget. My dad supplied me with money for my spring break trip to Switzerland, and money to give my relatives when I went to Czechoslovakia after the semester was done.

Somehow I managed to make it stretch. That $35 bucks a week got me 2 not so square meals each day, plus tickets for the subway (when I actually bought one), an occasional würst from the stand outside Steffl’s department store on the Karntnerstraße, and the most wonderful gelato, always hazelnut, that I have ever had in my entire life. I even managed a weekend trip to Rome without having to dip into my savings too much.

When I got home with a surplus of cash, I remember my dad sort of scolding me for not having spent more of the money he had sent me over with. I don’t know, I figured him sending me to Vienna was payment enough – I could rough it a little. It taught me how to economize and stretch a dollar. Plus, I came home an absolute rail.

Not eating will do that to you.

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.

I go to Vienna, and my dad outfits me with a 110 camera. Not the smartest of moves in hindsight.

When I was a sophomore at the University of Delaware back in 1984, I did one of the coolest things a student can do. I studied abroad. I got my keister out of Delaware and spent 4 glorious months in Vienna, Austria. I had been miserable at college, and was seriously contemplating transferring schools, when I read a flyer in the Student Center advertising their study abroad programs.

After months of convincing my parents, taking German 101, and getting accepted in to the program, I found myself on a plane to Luxemborg, scared shitless about the journey was embarking on. Even though I’ve always been outgoing, I’ve also always lacked confidence, and the idea of spending an entire semester with the same 20 students was horrifying. If nobody liked me there were no other options.

I was sick as a dog, probably from nerves, for the first 4 days. I missed out on dancing in Luxemborg, beer halls in Munich, and our first night in Vienna. I didn’t feel normal until our first full day in our pension. This didn’t help me socially one bit – many friendships were formed during those first days of travel and partying where I was now viewed as the sickly drip who went to bed early.

The famous Pension Pertschy, my home while in Vienna

My roommates were an odd bunch. Four of us shared a nice sized room on the third floor of pension Pertschy, a very cool hotel smack dab in the middle of the 1st district. One gal was older – in her 30’s or so. Another was a nerdish type with a head full of frizzy black hair. The 3rd was a chubby slut who liked to party. I had quite a few run ins with her.

We attended school at the Austro-American Institute, where we took classes in Austrian art, Austrian music, Austrian theater, Austrian history and of course, German. Each day on our walk from the pension to the institute, we would pass the Hofburg palace, and when lucky would catch the Lipizanner stallions being led from their stables to the training ring. The rest of our time at the beginning was spent exploring the city, and finding new and interesting places to eat and drink.

Keeping one’s self fed became a game of sorts shortly after our arrival. The way our “meal plan” worked while we were overseas was that we were given money on a monthly basis that was to cover our food to the tune of $5 per meal. The pension gave you a daily breakfast of tea, rolls, butter and jam, but you were on your own for lunch and dinner. Living in the 1st district, which is like living on Rodeo Drive, made buying a meal for $5 near to impossible. Even McDonalds ran you more than that.

So we all got creative. We would hit the Billa, a local supermarket, a few times a week and purchase items like rice, ham, rolls and yogurt. We had a hot plate and 2 pans that we would all share to make pasta or rice. And once in a while, we would splurge and eat a meal out. I lost a lot of weight that semester.

glug, glug, glug!

And of course, you had to save money for beer. The vending machine outside my room had Pepsi, a soda called Lift, and Gösser Beer. Yes, Beer. In a vending machine. Outside my door. How splendid that was. Unless you didn’t have the correct change.

I spent a large amount of my weekend nights dancing at a place called The Atrium, drinking large pints of beer “ohne” lemon. For some reason, they would float a slice of lemon atop the beer, and I didn’t care for it so I always ordered it without. To this day hearing songs like “All Night Long,” “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’” and “Baby I Need Your Loving,” bring me back to that dark, underground dance club.

I attended 5 operas, 3 plays, had a date with an American diplomat, travelled to both Italy and Switzerland, and became somewhat competent in German – so much so that I took 2 more semesters of the language once I returned to the states. This after deciding to go for a BFA rather than a BA solely because the former didn’t require a language. Silly me.

I had so many adventures during that grand spring, many of which you’ll read about in future blog posts. I was so scared to go…so much so that I almost bailed at the last minute. But as I sat in the April sun on the grass in the Stadtpark, watching the ducks and swans piddle about on the water, I was so very glad that I made the trip.