Vienna Waits for You
goya n. (Urdu) The transporting suspension of disbelief that can occur in good storytelling.
“Slow down you crazy child, you’re so ambitious for a juvenile.” Billy Joel’s words have always struck a chord for me. Maybe it was the fact that the 13 Going on 30 soundtrack was very important to me when growing up but I would like to think of it more as me resonating with the lyrics themselves and not with the fact that I resonated just a bit too much with 13 year old Jenna Rink. By the time I got to Vienna, boy did I ever. I was ready to slow down. I mentioned in the last post how I am tired of travel itself. I desperately crave just being able to stay in a place for a few days, catch my breathe, drink some coffee outside in the morning sun (even if it’s instant- I take what I can get when I travel), and maybe, just maybe, catch up on the blog. Vienna would not entirely be that place for me, but it would definitely help.
I'm sure I'm about to jinx myself by saying this but for once I didn't have a single issue getting from Budapest to Vienna. I knew there was a reason I preferred busses to trains, despite the opinion of the masses. The downside to Vienna, however, is that it is massive and sprawling so it is virtually impossible to move around the city without utilizing the metro system. That means more money, unfortunately. Once I got into Vienna I had to take a metro far away from one of the city's many bus stations to the central district where my hostel was located. I arrived at Seven Vienna after dark, dreading what I was about to walk into. The reviews online had been less than recommending for this hostel but it was cheap, and in Vienna, the gap between cheap and everything else was significant enough to endure any horror I was about to walk into.
Thankfully, I would only be staying in the hostel for one night, having secured a last minute couch surfing host only a couple days ago. I'd heard so much about couch surfing over my travels but was always reluctant to try it myself. But there is always a first time for everything and what better time to try it out than here? Plus, I've always loved being able to actually get a sense of how people really live outside the touristic areas of the places I visit and couch surfing would be a great way to do that.
As I checked in and handed over my credit card to pay for my one night, the receptionist looked at me and said, "It looks like you canceled your next two nights too late. We have a 72 hour cancellation policy so you'll need to pay for those." I looked at a sheet of paper tacked up on the wall behind his head reading, "Cancellations must be made at least 24 hours before date of arrival." Was this guy serious? He was honestly going to try to pull this shit on me? Did I look like a stereotypically dumb and gullible American tourist? Don’t answer that. I pointed to the sign and said, perhaps a bit condescendingly, "Oh really? Because that says differently so I am not going to pay for any extra nights." He seemed annoyed and then feigned (poorly I might add) ignorance. "Oh.... What's that doing there. I'll have to speak to my boss about that." Are you fucking kidding me, mate? You're honestly going to play dumb? "You do that," I said, "but I'm still only paying for night." That's another thing travel gives you: the guts to stick up for yourself and a fantastic "don't fuck with me" attitude.
With key in hand and feeling a little bit smug at how I'd foiled his swindling attempts, I left the reception office and walked around the block where the entrance to the rooms themselves were. The moment I walked in, I was already anticipating leaving. The bunkroom was essentially one large corridor, painted in the most distasteful and eye assaulting shade of puke green. To get to my bunk “room”, which was really just more of a section of this one massive room, I had to walk through rows upon rows of other bunks. Whatever. I could deal with this. I had stayed in worse. Just give me some tea so I could do some writing and go to bed. Even that was easier said than done consider the kitchen could be called that loosely at best. Two cups does not constitute a kitchen and I luckily have gotten in the habit of stealing green tea from hostels when I find it because this hostel didn’t provide it, not that I was surprised that the great swindlers were too cheap to provide free tea. As I sat drinking my tea, I called my mom and could barely even hear her over the rude and incredibly loud British guys who decided to camp out in the kitchen. My mother could tell I was getting annoyed and I eventually just gave up on any hopes of productivity and went to bed.
The next morning, I got dressed and left with haste, preferring to lug my bag around the city for a few hours as opposed to staying there. I wasn’t meeting my couch surfing host for a couple hours still so instead I found a nice park bench in Stadtpark outside the famous Strauss statue and sat there with Nellie waiting, playing my ukulele to pass the time. A word on couch surfing for those who have never done it and don't know how it works. Couchsurfing.com is a great website where you can either search for hosts in different cities, or offer yourself to be a host. After reading the profiles of potential hosts, you send them a personalized message with the dates of your stay and then wait to hear back on whether they can host you for that time. I was always told that getting accepted without any references was difficult but I was simply honest in my message about the fact that I was new to couch surfing and as Kerstin accepting me, it seemed to work. From there, the experience is highly dependent on both the host and surfer.
As I was sitting there, writing by this point, a girl with beautiful fiery red hair came up to me and asked, “Amber?” Nellie provides a great landmark for me. I jumped up. “Hi! Yeah that’s me. You must be Kerstin.” We exchanged a slightly awkward greeting, then I hoisted up my stuff and we were off to the nearest metro station. Kerstin’s flat was located in a nice, quiet area just a few stops away from the center of the city. Upon entering, we were greeted (sort of) by her two cats. First there was Fia, named after German word for fire because of her bright orange eyes and a streak of orange fur on the left side of her face amid her otherwise all black coat. Fia was a bit skiddish, and not entirely fond of being touched, but I think a lot of her neuroticisms stemmed from the constant torture inflicted on her by other cat. Marie Crissy was the baby of the family, just under a year old, a pale orange color, and full of affection and energy. Marie Crissy became my snuggle buddy for the next couple nights and I have rarely met a cat who so liked physical attention.
After getting over the initial “I don’t know you but I’ve invited you into my home” phase, Kerstin and I instantly hit it off and we found ourselves sitting on the kitchen floor talking for hours about everything form deep, insightful observations about the nature of humans and travelers to our favorite Pokémon. She was so fun to talk to, and like many of my fellow travelers I have met along the way, she simply seemed to get where I was coming from and what I was talking about. Before we knew it, it was nearly 10pm. Kerstin cooked me a delicious tofu curry, a vegetarian herself, and then we sat up talking even longer before finally retiring for bed.
The next morning was calm and relaxed, without any feelings of rush to be anywhere, which is something I hadn’t felt in quite a while. Kerstin made me a delicious breakfast of vegan pancakes, which were miraculously the closest thing I have eaten to American pancakes in the entire time that I have been abroad. Then we set out to explore the city. I was so incredibly grateful to her for being willing to wander around with me. I imagine that for her living, the typical tourist route must get incredibly dull, yet Kerstin seemed perfectly happy to show me around and ensured me that she loved just wandering around Vienna. It is certainly not an expectation of couch surfers that our hosts act as tour guides as well. She was going above and beyond the call of duty.
As we walked around, I was struck by how clean and new Vienna felt. I mean, here was this great historical city and yet it felt it still had that “new city” vibe to it, like a car that still smells like upholstery and Armor All. Other than architectural style, you couldn’t tell the different in age between the 17th century buildings and brand spanking new hotels made in the strangest architectural styles. Even the water was clean. Pumped directly in from the Austrian Alps, the water of Vienna is some of the best in the world and you can drink from just about any city fountain. In fact, they have to put “Klein trinkt wasser” signs on the fountains you can’t drink from because otherwise everyone assumes you can drink from any of them. Where Budapest was grey and dingy, Vienna was white and pristine, practically gleaming with a smart and moneyed sheen. Like everything in Austria, Vienna felt, looked, and was expensive.
But before we got into the meat of the city, we decided to stop for a coffee break, and where better to stop for two cat lovers than Café Neko, the cat café of Vienna. Over my travels, I have seen several cat cafes but I’ve never gone inside, maybe because going into a cat café alone borders just a little too closely to crazy cat lady for my comfort. Going with someone else, however, made it less crazy. Inside the little café, home to five different cats, including a gorgeous maine coon, a fat and lazy orange cat named Thomas who never once moved from his seat at our table, and a timid little black cat named Sonia, who was “not for beginners” with bright green eyes that made her look like Toothless from How to Train Your Dragon.
Not far from the café was both one of Mozart’s old homes and Blutgasse, or Blood Street. Though neither of us knew why it names that at the time, some later research taught me that, during the 14th century when the Knights Templar were under attack by the nobles who disliked their influence, wealth, and tax free status. On Friday, October 13, 1307, King Philip IV of France attacked, arresting and torturing Templars in France. They took refuse in Austria but when they were found in 1312, the street of their refuge ran red with blood, hence the name. Today, it is the ironic site of Vienna’s Peace Museum.
From there we walked past all the major sites like the Belvedere Palace, the astronomical clock, St. Stephen's Cathedral, the only Jewish memorial in Vienna not destroyed by Nazi soldiers (apparently they just completely missed it despite the fact that is very large and very obviously Jewish), and the museum quarter. Though we didn't go inside any of the museums due to the extortionate prices they charge for admission, we did find out that the Mumok Museum of Modern Art is musical! And by that I mean the building itself is essentially a collection of tone plates that each give off their own note when you knock on them. Vienna really is a city filled with music, and not just in the form of the nods to Mozart you find on every corner (seriously gift shops even sell Mozart rubber ducks....WHY?). Kerstin and I stood there, banging on black bricks, drawing a lot of curious looks until a young finally approached us to ask what on earth we were doing. After explaining ourselves, I guess it meant that one less person in the square thought we were crazy. Success!
We stopped for a brief traditional dinner at an outdoor food market near the site of a month long Vienna film festival of käsespätzle, which is basically just cheese covered potato dumplings with fried onions. Discovering I was a fan of street art after walking through a tunnel of child inspired silhouettes and advice by children (some of them really deep and inspiring and some of them, such as “Paint cars like cows”, which were less so), Kerstin took me down along the Danube canal. Its concrete walls were covered with various murals, beautiful (and disturbing), and inspiring quotations, such as “kein mensch ist illegal” translating to “no person is illegal”. I found it fascinating to look out across the canal and see the sharp contrast between the seedy underground bits of Vienna laying right below the pristine wall of buildings just above. Dichotomies exist everywhere if you look hard enough for them. Naturally, such a location is breeding ground for hip culture and thus along the canal one could also find little manmade beach bars, artists and sculptors working away on their next project, spontaneous salsa groups, and various young people enjoying a beer with their feet dangling over the water. Kerstin and I eventually joined the scene, letting our feet hang in the water as we sat there talking more while the sun slowly set over the city.
The next morning, since Kerstin had made me breakfast the day before, I figured it was the least I could do to return the favor to make her some of my famous French toast. Then came the dreaded goodbye. Once again, I had made a wonderful new friend only to move on as quickly as I had come. But Kerstin invited me to come back any time I was back in Vienna again and in return, I told her she would always have a place to stay if ever she found herself in the mountains of Montana. Like many others I have met, I left with the small flickering hope that we would one day meet again. As I walked away from Kerstin’s flat to the metro that would take me to my train away from Vienna, I popped in my earbuds and turned my iPod to Billy Joel’s “Vienna”, checking off a small but important item that has sat buried on my bucket list for years as Billy Joel crooned the theme song of my life: “Dream on, but don’t imagine they’ll all come true. When will you realize, Vienna waits for you?”