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Letter from … Hungary?

Okay, I’m not really in Hungary. I’m sitting by the pool at my parents’ house in Phoenix, and I’ve been home from Europe for over two weeks. I thought I’d send one last letter to wrap up what went on for the last week of my trip. Hungary was a last minute addition to my schedule, which is why I decided to mention it in the subject of my message.

I spent two nights in Dresden, which is to say that I had one really solid day there, which was probably enough to see the things I wanted to see. I enjoyed seeing Dresden, but it left me with a lot of mixed feelings. The city is coming up on its 800th anniversary in 2006, so absolutely everything was under construction. The train stations, the monuments, the buildings, the squares — everything was torn up for construction. And, from the looks of things, everything was going back to how it looked before World War II. The city still shows countless scars of its destruction during the war, but somehow I couldn’t help but think that civic leaders were getting lost looking in the wrong direction; there didn’t seem to be anything that was looking forward into the future. For me, the best example of this phenomenon was the Frauenkirche, a church that was leveled during the war. It is currently being rebuilt — at an astronomical cost — to look just as it was before. However, they are also using the original stones whenever possible, so the result is a patchwork of old and new stone that makes the building look like a checkerboard. Why start off the 21st century with an 18th century design? Has man learned nothing in 300 years? I didn’t get it. Still, I’d like to go back to Dresden in 2007 or 2008, to see how it all looks when it’s finished. Maybe then it will all make sense to me.

From Dresden, I took a very long train ride to Vienna, Austria. There is a train that goes from Dresden directly to Vienna once a day, but it goes through the Czech Republic, which was not part of my rail pass. So I added several extra hours onto my trip and stayed in Germany until I crossed into Austria. To accomplish this, I had to switch trains in Leipzig and Nuremberg. For whatever reason, on that day, every train in Germany seemed to be running 15 to 30 minutes behind, which I found very unusual. However, it frustrated me even more when I realized I could have been in Vienna several hours earlier if I had caught the earlier train from Leipzig, which was already supposed to have departed by the time I arrived, but which actually departed just two minutes after I arrived, on the adjacent track. That gave me a couple extra hours to enjoy the ultra-modern Leipzig main train station, which was also a major shopping mall, which was a couple hours more than I needed.

I had already booked a room for the night in Vienna, so when I arrived there, I simply took a taxi to the hotel. The hotel was supposed to be a four-star place. However, my feeling is that a hotel in a major metropolitan area that does not have its restaurant open when a guest arrives at 9:45 p.m. is not a four-star place, no matter what country I’m in. It had been a long day on the train, and I really didn’t feel like going out to find food, so it was a good thing I had eaten an entire pizza at the train station in Nuremburg, because all I had for the rest of the evening was a piece of chocolate and a beer out of the mini-bar.

This was my second visit to Vienna. The first time I had been there was in 1994, with Kirsten. On the first trip, it was July, and it was an especially hot several days in Vienna, so everyone slept with their windows open. We were staying in a bed and breakfast with a room that faced a courtyard. Kirsten, who was not accustomed to sleeping with windows open, wore earplugs. However, I was kept awake for quite a long time by a couple whose room also faced the courtyard and who were having sex — loudly. Flash forward ten years. I’m in Vienna again, different hotel, different time of year, it’s cold and raining, and the windows are closed. But once again, I’m kept awake by a couple having sex — loudly. This time, they were in the next room, and their bed was against my wall. I told this story to my friend the next day, about both visits, and she thought I must be convinced that Vienna is full of sex-crazed nuts. I think it was probably a coincidence, but I’m curious to see (or hear) what happens the next time I go.

Katharina, a classmate during my French classes in Montpellier in 2003, drove to Vienna to meet me in the morning. After we had breakfast, we took a tour of the Schoenbrunn Palace, which was very close to my hotel. Later, we walked around the inner city of Vienna. I had Wienerschnitzel for lunch, which for me is always a highlight of being in Austria! After our sightseeing in Vienna, we drove to Grosspetersdorf, a small village where her parents live and where she grew up, a couple hours’ drive south of Vienna. As we pulled up to the house, I joked that it didn’t look like a place that saw many American tourists, and Katharina suggested I might be the first!

Her parents were very gracious hosts, and I had a great time with them. They let me stay in what was essentially a small apartment attached to their house, so I had my own bedroom, bathroom, etc. We all went out in the evening to something called a Buschenschank. (I had Katharina write it down so I would remember how to spell it.) It’s a vineyard that sells its own wine, but it is also a very limited restaurant license that lets them serve certain homemade meals along with the wine. The only drinks you could order were the vineyard’s wine, water, and some type of apple juice. Most of the dishes were bread, vegetables, and pork. Everyone sat at long, wooden tables, so sometimes you’d have several families at a table. Everyone (except me) seemed to know each other. The food was good, the wine was great, everyone was happy, so what was not to like? It was a lot of fun, and a great experience for me.

After dinner, the parents turned in, and so Katharina and I went out to one of the two local bars. The one we chose was an Irish pub with a Hungarian bartender. We spent some time catching each other up with stories from the past year.

The next morning, after a nice breakfast, while her parents were at church — it was Sunday — Katharina and I visited a nearby castle and a recreated peasant village from the early 20th century. We came back to the house after our sightseeing, and we had a lunch I won’t soon forget. Her parents made some type of roasted stuffed veal, served with potatoes and gravy. It was incredible. Oddly enough, Katharina wouldn’t eat it, expressing some objection to veal, so she ate her own meal. They had plenty of extras, so I took a second portion, which I regretted a few minutes later when I realized there was also a dessert coming. One of my new classmates, a German woman, had sent me a text message on my phone the previous day, telling me I needed to try Kaiserschmarrn, a sort of pancake with fruit topping, while I was in Austria. Katharina had passed this information on to her mother, and, much to my surprise, she made it for me! We finished with coffee, and by that time, I didn’t want to leave. However, we had more to do that day.

Katharina doesn’t stay with her parents during the week, although she is there almost every weekend. She works and lives in Eisenstadt, a small city that is about an hour south of Vienna by train. So our plan was to go back to Eisenstadt that evening, where she would show me around, and she would put me back on the train Monday morning before she went to work. However, the previous day, on our way from Vienna to Grosspetersdorf, I noticed the road signs and made a comment on how I didn’t realize how close to Hungary her parents’ village was. She paused for a moment, and then asked me if I wanted to go there on Sunday, on our way back to Eisenstadt. So that is how Hungary, the sixth country I visited during my trip, was added to my itinerary. So our plan was to drive about an hour or so out of the way, using roads in Hungary to get from Grosspetersdorf to Eisenstadt. Along the way, we stopped in a small city called Sopron, and took in some of the sights in the central square. It wasn’t much, but it was interesting to compare the Austrian and Hungarian cities that are so near each other, but so different. On the way back into Austria, the Austrian police made Katharina open her trunk, which I think frightened her a little, because she said had never been asked to do that before. I think they were looking for smuggled people, not smuggled goods, because despite the fact that we both had bags back there, he let her shut the trunk as soon as she’d opened it.

When we arrived in Eisenstadt, I checked into my room, and then we got some coffee to warm up a bit, since it was a particularly gray day. Then we did a little sightseeing there, including the palace. We had dinner nearby; I had goulash. I always seem to eat very well in Austria, and this time was no exception. I wrote in one of my earlier messages that I had lost some weight, but I think I reclaimed much of it during the second half of my trip. After dinner, we went out for some drinks, chatted a bit more, and then Katharina left me at my hotel fairly early. I had started noticing some cold symptoms, and I knew I had a long day the next day.

Katharina picked me up very early to bring me to the train station. I think it was around 6:15 a.m. I remember it was dark and cold, the restaurant wasn’t open yet, and I wasn’t feeling very well. I decided that I was going to need two days to get back to Paris. I could have done it in one, but it would have been a very long day, and since I had two days left on my rail pass, why not split it up and make it a little more pleasant? It was a good move, because my cold symptoms really started to kick in during the day, and by the time I got to Frankfurt in the mid-afternoon, I really didn’t want to go anywhere or do anything. I checked into a hotel right across the street from the train station. The rate was surprisingly reasonable, and it had a feature I’ve never previously seen in any hotel anywhere: free mini-bar. In the fridge, there were two beers, two Pepsis, two mineral waters, and two orange juices. I don’t remember whether or not I ate dinner. I took a very, very long shower, watched some TV, took advantage of the mini-bar, and slept for about twelve hours.

I think all the sleep did me some good, because I felt a little better the next day, although it was clear that I had a cold and I was not going to shake it. I had an enormous breakfast at the hotel, which probably confirms that I did not eat dinner the previous evening. Then I went right back across the street to get the next train bound for Paris. While I was in the station, I got myself a sandwich and a soda, just to save myself a few euros from having to buy food aboard the train. In the station, there were people passing out free samples of Pocket Coffee, little chocolates filled with espresso. I had seen this going on in other train stations in Germany, so it must have been some big, coordinated promotion. They wore orange and brown jumpsuits with the product’s logo on them. I took one and, as the name suggested, stuck it in my coat pocket. I thought about how these chocolates would be a real problem if it were warm out, but not a problem at all today.

The train ride from Frankfurt to Paris was about 5.5 hours. I was lucky I had bought the sandwich, because that was the only food I had the entire time. I walked the entire length of the train looking for the cafe car, and finally I asked one of the conductors. No cafe car today, she said. Huh? A 5.5-hour ride, including an almost three-hour express section with no stops, and no cafe car? I was not pleased. My throat was in pain. I wanted coffee, dammit! Even at three bucks a cup, I still would have bought two, at least. I apparently wasn’t the only one irritated by the lack of a cafe car, because they made an announcement to the passengers about a half-hour later.

When I arrived in Paris, I was happy that I had actually slept for a couple hours. I simply put my head against my coat, which was hanging next to my seat, and used it as a pillow. Unfortunately, I had forgotten my free sample of Pocket Coffee was still in my pocket. The heat from my head caused the chocolate to melt, and my coat pocket was soaked with sticky-sweet espresso. I wiped out as much as I could with a couple paper napkins, and then refrained from putting my hand in that pocket for the remainder of the trip. Fortunately, it was a little warmer in France than in Germany and Austria, so I didn’t really need the coat much.

In Paris, I spent my last two nights in Europe at the Hotel Printemps, a one-star hotel where I’ve crashed many times before. At this point of the trip, money was starting to get really low, and I thought I’d enjoy spending a little more money enjoying some nice meals and a little less on the room. Unfortunately, the only single room available was on the fifth floor. With no elevator, by the time I got my bags to the room, I needed a shower. After that, I did some walking, had some dinner, and saw a movie. The movie I saw was Collateral. I paid over twelve dollars to see this movie on one of the “prestige” screens on the Champs-Elysees; had I known it was already in the second-run theaters in the U.S., and that I could have seen it for two dollars the night I came home, I might have chosen another film. I spent the last full day I had in Paris walking through parks and doing some window shopping. The fall sales actually started that day in Paris, but the fall and spring sales are never as good as the summer or winter sales, and with the exchange rates where they were, there were few obvious bargains.

I woke up early the next morning, determined to have my last decent croissant before I headed to the airport. The bakery/coffee shop across the street from the hotel has some great croissants — I’ve now eaten breakfast there many times, and my parents remember it fondly, too. It has a small dining area where you can sit down and have coffee, but it’s not a real cafe. I think it’s classified as a salon de thé, or tea room. I don’t think it was officially open when I came in, since all the chairs were still on the tables, but the people working there let me have my coffee and croissant anyway. Then I headed to the airport by subway and train, which was a bit of a chore with my bags. Fortunately, I had cleaned out and re-arranged my bags the previous evening. Among the things I had been carrying around Europe for two weeks was a can of ravioli. I don’t remember what made me think it was going to come in handy, but it didn’t. I also shifted my wine to my backpack, since I wanted to carry it on the plane, and that actually made my load seem a little less cumbersome. When I got to the airport, everything actually went quite smoothly. I checked in, cleared through passport control, and still had plenty of time to find my sister some truffles at the duty-free shop.

The flight back home was long. Flying from Europe back to the East Coast is difficult enough, but then to be only a little more than half-way home is downright demoralizing. Immigrations and customs in Philadelphia wasn’t a real problem. The real problem was security. In Philadelphia, you can’t get from your international arrival to your domestic connection without going through security again, which meant taking apart my backpack, which I had packed so carefully, so that some TSA charm-school flunk-out could see my computer, which had been cheerfully passed through x-ray machines in France, Belgium, and Spain. (I watched the screen as they passed my bag through the machine at Charles de Gaulle, and the computer doesn’t even really show up, so I’m not sure why they bother.) Because of the extra screening, and the fact that we had landing slightly behind schedule to begin with, I really had to rush to get to my gate on time. When I finally got to the gate, I found out then that the aircraft wasn’t even there yet, and that we were going to be taking off at least an hour late.

One of the stranger coincidences of planning this trip was that my parents, who were vacationing in New England, were also flying US Airways, and were scheduled to be on the same flight as me from Philadelphia back to Phoenix. With all the late arrivals into Philadelphia, it became really iffy whether or not they would arrive in time to catch the flight, but it turned out they arrived from Manchester before the flight to Phoenix even began to board. We weren’t assigned seats near each other, but when I sat down, I convinced the two people sitting next to me to switch with my parents, so we had the long flight to catch up on each others’ vacation stories. However, we were all so tired from traveling that we were half-asleep before long. I must have been really tired, because I managed to spill half a bottle of red wine all over myself, which I got to wear for the remainder of the flight.

Note: Club soda really does take out red wine stains. Until this happened, I had always thought it was a myth. Two liters of Safeway-brand club soda saved a pair of jeans for about 69 cents.

So, that’s about it. I’ve been home for over two weeks now. The first several days I was really still fighting my cold, and even still I have a few mild symptoms. I guess it was some sort of special, exotic European strain of cold virus. Whatever it was, my father caught it too, and he had to take a couple days off of work himself. Now I’m back into the job search, and I’ve had some meetings and interviews already, so that’s moving along. I’ve received several text messages and e-mails from my old and new friends from Europe, and that always lifts my spirits. My sister and I went to see Velvet Revolver in concert a week ago; we only stayed about an hour, because it was so loud, we thought we were going to go deaf. Next weekend, I’m planning to go to a custom motorcycle show with my father. If any of you happen to watch American Chopper on the Discovery Channel, Orange County Choppers and the Teutel family, featured on the show, are going to be there with eight to ten of their bikes. That’s the main reason I’m going.