So, this was the original plan: Keith and I were going to meet our great friend Robin and her sister Jess in Prague. They were going to fly over in celebration of many things, but notably of Robin finishing her PhD qualifying exam. Keith and I were going to get there by any means necessary and celebrate yet another wondrous reunion abroad. But again there were hiccups in the plan. Robin couldn’t make it as planned and was going to have to reschedule her European celebration. Plus, Keith was still off galavanting in the mountains somewhere- a very excusable reason for touching base so seldom. Jess couldn’t travel with Robin when she planned to reschedule, and the plane tickets had already been bought, so when Jess asked if I was still down to wander the roads of the unknown with her, I replied with a “dude, yeah!”.
On my birthday I walked the streets of Rome once more, said goodbye to Annina and flew to Prague for another meet up. This one, like all the rest, turned out to be more difficult than planned, especially after a delayed flight and jumping the gun with heavy, celebratory beers to carry. I had said for us to meet in a place which Google led me to believe was in a completely different part of town than it was. So I wandered around for a while looking for Jess and the Prague Castle and finding neither. Eventually I asked a coupe, who ended up being from Kansas, for what I was looking for. They’d been all over the city checking out the sites- they knew exactly where it was.
Across town I went, as quickly as I could, hoping that Jess would still be there when I finally made it. The meet up was inconveniently at the very top of the only hill in town. But before I could even complete my first lap around the castle, I heard my name. Yes! Finally a chance to sit and enjoy the warm beers with a view of the incredible medieval architecture and the company of a friend from home.
To be honest, at the time we met up I really didn’t know Jess hardly at all. Granted, when I met up with Pol-Ewen I didn’t know him much either. As I’ve mentioned, there’s no way to get to know someone like traveling with them. All you have to know is that you’d like to get to know them. Those nights in Prague we got to know a whole lot of people actually. We couch surfed with Todd- a non-doctor for Doctors Without Borders. Todd was spending his week before going on-call (i.e. he could at any minute be called to any 3rd world country to help solve any sort of problem) in good company and plenty of it. Our first night there he hosted 15 people, the second night 16, and the third night 8. Todd had basically opened his Prague condo (complete with a stunning view) to as many surfers that asked to stay and didn’t mind sharing the place with everyone else. Sounds crazy but it was a total blast- for Todd as well as his surfers I think. It was made possible by Todd’s seemingly endless patience, stamina and willingness to make things work. It was a unique experience for me and Jess’ first time couch surfing- she got off on the right foot, that’s for sure.
With so many new friends there was never a dull moment. We spent a lot of time walking the streets of the ancient city, untouched by World War II- especially exciting at night. We took the free walking tour and learned all kinds of things, particularly about the city’s dark past. There were many churches and monuments to visit, but I especially liked the art pieces by the controversial Prague local David Černý. Of course we couldn’t pass up the chance to party in the renowned 4-story club (only one like it in Europe they say) with a new type of music and crazy different dance floor on each level.
It was unfortunate that we weren’t the crew of four Americans that we’d thought we’d be, but with such a successful time in Prague it’s tough to be dissatisfied. A huge part of its success had to do with Todd and all the great people that found him. And of course with Jess being down for whatever and actually following me into this random guy’s flat. But with Todd going on-call and all the surfers moving out, it was time to move on. We took a bus to Vienna and rolled the dice yet again.
I’ve found that while traveling there are so many new and exciting things going on that it’s near impossible to actively do anything productive. Just look at how late in the game I’m writing these blog posts. There are just always new people to talk to, new places to see, new things to do- everything is new and exciting and you just tend to put stuff off. Well, that doesn’t bode well with writing couch surfing requests, and seeing as neither Jess nor I had very reliable contacts in eastern Europe, I was sending a lot of couch requests. If I was lucky, I’d get on couch surfing and request a place for Jess and I 2-3 days in advance. Not a whole lot of time to decide whether or not you want to let some stranger into your home. And so I got a LOT of declines in response- mostly “sorry, we’re already hosting” or “too short of notice, I’m way too busy” or “I’m out of town on my own holiday”. I’d send the requests a couple days before showing up and often get the decline on the day we got there or very often a while after. Suffice it to say that we had quite a lot of trouble finding couches to surf and a lot of it was due to my lack of being on top of things.
When we got to Vienna, having sent a bunch of requests for couches the day before, we had no idea where were going to end up. First stop: wifi. Thank you Starbucks. Now, I really try hard to seek out couch surfing hosts who I think I’ll really connect with and form a lasting bond. I send a sincere and legit request to them, expressing why I think we would get along well and have a strong connection. But like I said, I do it WAY too last minute. And when it comes down to it, beggars can’t be choosy. Conveniently, lots of bigger cities have a place where last minute requests can be posted. We used it often and a couple times it worked out. Bare in mind, there are times when it makes perfect sense to pull the plug and shell out for accommodation- fortunately that wasn’t the case in Vienna.
No, in Vienna I unknowingly had a friend of a friend. My brother (from another mother) Karl did a similar epic tour of Europe about 3 years ago. Of course he made friends everywhere he went as well. I was so glad that one he’d made in Vienna responded to our request: Mr. Honzo- a man who has perfected the art of being a host. He hosted Karl and his friend all those years ago, and now saw my last minute request, gave us directions to his place and said come by whenever. When we got there he had made the spare bed and piled on all the info on Vienna we could ask for- from leaflets to documentaries.
Our time in Vienna, and especially with Mr. Honzo, was far too short (despite staying longer than planned). After seeing his place and dropping our stuff we headed to one edge of town to walk through the Schönbrunn Palace, then crossed all the way to the other side for the Wursetlprater Amusement park (supposedly the oldest amusement park in the world). We took a chance to ride on the Vienna Starflyer- what we didn’t even realize is the world’s tallest chair-o-plane, spinning us suspended in swings at 117m off the ground. Epic.
The next day we self guided a tour of the city- checking out all the awesome things we’d read about in Honzo’s helpful guides. Saw some incredible buildings, the stables of the famous Spanish Riding School horses, a few interesting markets, walked along the river, and happened upon some school kids singing in celebration (still not sure what of). That night we enjoyed wine and an opera on the big screen set up in the park in front of the elegant state house. Another beautiful European city, and another amazing host. It was a bummer to say goodbye after making such a cool friend in such a short time, but Jess’ time in Europe was short and there were so many places to see.
Another bus took us to Budapest where we immediately started sorting out how to get to Croatia. We spent almost 2 hours going from the train station to the bus station and back, trying to figure out the logistics of getting to the coast of Croatia by the right time and for the right amount of money. It took a while, but we nailed it.
Our host in Budapest had again found us once we’d reached desperation and posted in the last minute group. A bit of a strange surfing experience- we didn’t meet the guy the whole time we were there. He gave us directions to his apartment and told us how to get in. So there we were in our own place in Budapest, just a few blocks from the train station and a metro stop that was a few stops from downtown. The next day, when some other couch surfers came down from the apartment above, we found out that the host has a bunch of empty apartments in the same building which he makes available to couch surfers. Pretty cool.
Both nights we spent in Budapest revolved around knowing where the Olympics were showing and when the specific races were. My friend and former teammate Scott Weltz was due to represent the United States, swimming in the prelims and hopefully finals of the 200 breast- I wasn’t about to miss that. For the prelims we were at a huge place with an outdoor bar and the Olympics projected on a giant screen in the middle. Scott took 3rd in his heat and sealed a strong spot in the finals. The next night were in a big park with an even bigger projection of the games. Scott took 5th- absolutely incredible. I think I was the only one in the crowd watching him as the race was won by Hungarian Daniel Gyutra who set a world record in the process. The park was erupting with Hungarian excitement, but I was just as loud, celebrating my friend’s world-class achievements. I even stood up with everyone for the Hungarian national anthem- so cool.
For our one full day in Budapest we did a self guided walking tour of the city- and what a beautiful city it is. On the west side is the Buda- the hillier, more subdued part of the city. Just across the Danube River to the east is the Pest, with its many sites to see, places to go, and people to meet. We saw some of the sites, checked out a very cool local market with some authentic Hungarian souvenirs and a whole floor of strange Hungarian food, then we hiked the biggest hill of the Buda to see it all from above. We didn’t quite do it justice in that short of time, but we did our best. It is a very awesome city that I hope to make it back to explore the many intimacies which I’m sure are everywhere.
Continued in eastcapades pt.2