At Kiev-Boryspil Airport, the taxi drivers are full of shit and their shifty grins let you know it before they offer you a price or a ride. When they give me a price in Euros, they actually chuckle along with me when I laugh in their faces at their quoted price, as if to say “I knew you wouldn’t fall for that, but I had to try anyway.” Boryspil is much closer to the airport than Kiev, but naturally the drivers attempt to charge 20 Euros, the same exorbitant cost to get to the city, for the much shorter ride. No one bothers me after that, and they actually continue smiling at me as if I am somehow complicit in their scheme. I only have US Dollars on me, so I buy some Ukrainian Hryvnia at the currency exchange before searching for the bus that will take me to the small airport town of Boryspil. I wait nearly an hour for the bus, but when it arrives there is no one there to sell me a ticket. Therefore I get a free ride, wedged uncomfortably between bagless airport workers. It is clear to them I am a tourist; it is unclear to them why I am going to Boryspil.
Northwest Boryspil is likely similar to the image you have in your head of Ukraine. Parts of the city are urban, and others practically rural as the eighth-acre Soviet-era dacha plots have been reclaimed by nature. While small flower shops, grocery stores, and banks line the main street, an eerie lack of activity emanates through the town on a sunny weekday in early July. As I stroll off the main street, shops become rarer and rarer, until each block becomes an odd assortment of abandoned cottages, vacant lots, and semi-vacant apartments with brawny babushkas selling beer in ground-floor bodegas. By the last block, where my hostel is supposed to be, there is nothing but a single low rise and abandoned cottages. My hostel seems to be located in the apartment building, but no signs point to it and Booking.com provides little more information.
Finally, a young woman comes out with her child and directs me to the nondescript gray door which she believes to be my hostel. Sure enough, the door opens and a long hallway leads me to a couple of dorm rooms, a kitchen, and two separate bathrooms. The only thing missing is the owner; I have the place to myself for several hours before she finally returns, taken aback that I broke into her house and hostel. She gives me a price a dollar over the quoted Booking.com price, but I give it to her because I figure that my chipping in an extra buck might help her, some day, to be able to afford a lock on her front door. Besides, the extra dollar only makes it an 8-dollar hostel, and it figures that I finally “get what I pay for” after relative success in booking mostly agreeable cheap hostels in Europe.
Dinner consists of borscht and a small skillet of meat and potatoes. Boryspil’s version of Central Park is enchanting, and children play and families stroll as I sip cider ordered from the Ukrainian-only menu. The word “post-Soviet” doesn’t even deserve to be uttered here, and this is not the Ukraine I saw near my hostel. Excitement permeates the air like in the entrance to an amusement park, and garden-side cafes abound with young Ukrainians sipping coffee in Audrey Hepburn sunglasses. Full of beets and meat, I waddle back to the hostel and collapse in the un-air-conditioned bunk-room until I finally get to sleep.
I had told the hostel owner I would get up at 6, but I awake at around 5 and my intercontinental flight-anxiety makes it hard to fall back asleep, so I start packing and try to leave the hostel. When I realize the door is completely locked from the inside—and I am trapped in the building—I go to knock on the door to the owner’s room. She is snoring like a tractor on the other side, and when I rap the wooden door she awakes immediately and groggily escorts me outside.
The morning stretches out ahead of me like the morning of an important exam or school presentation. What will home be like? Has it changed at all since I left? Is this the right move, going back for two weeks, or will I realize what I am missing and not want to leave again? These fears roll through my mind for the next few hours as I walk the few miles to the airport. Buses of commuters to the airport pass by but I stroll onward, taking in this tiny town I will never see again.
Just before the sidewalks turn to dirt, I come across a “memorial complex” of monuments to the dead of WWII and the Chernobyl disaster. They say you can tell a lot about a culture by how they bury their dead. I believe you can tell much more by how they resurrect, how they memorialize, those lives lost in human-caused catastrophe. Death and life are inextricably linked. In a nation that saw years of violence and abuse under Soviet rule, and incredible destruction as a result of what we know as the Chernobyl disaster, death is didactic. There are several signs and stanchions explaining what radiation is and how those memorialized died, which many people in the west may find disturbing. Imagine walking through a cemetery, and each grave had a plaque saying how and why the resident passed on. It may be strange, but we, as a race, have always learned from death, and used our failures to propel us forward. I leave the park, passing a family stopping by to pay their respects and play in the grass. The park is not only there to teach survival, but to celebrate life and all we can do with it, and to implore those entering to treat it as sacred.
Gravel and grass appear on the roadside as the exit for the airport veers away from the main avenue. No one walks ahead or behind me, and I begin humming Vanessa Carlton’s seminal musical work “500 Miles” until I come to the airport. On the plane home, I sit between a Libyan-American man returning to his home in Ohio after visiting family in mercurially violent Tripoli, and a Hasidic Jewish man who asks if I, too, am a Jew when he and his colleagues start to pray before landing. All flights lead to Kiev, it seems, and Ukrainian International Airlines has a broad customer base. I try to write but instead jab the back of the seat for hours playing Tetris and watching films I wouldn’t watch normally. An idle mind is a horrible thing on a plane. What was life like when our entire lives were on airplane mode? It is the Fourth of July and when my parents pick me up at the airport, we get some tacos and I settle down for a couple weeks of life at home.
When I arrive at Kelenfold Station, across the Danube from the main city of Budapest, the area is clearly more residential than commercial. I walk a couple of miles to the evening’s hostel, where I am not sleeping in a building but in an actual yurt that the owners have built out of tarps and two-by-sixes in the back yard. The receptionist checks me in, shows me around, and nonchalantly directs me to the yurt, the showers, and the meditation platform (which probably has a more precise name, but I don’t know it). I hope that the insects don’t eat me alive, as the yurt’s top is open slightly, presumably to let smoke out. Though a ceramic plate of incense sits in the center, no incense is burning, and I think about finding some to complete the commune experience and ward off bugs. Nevertheless, I set my things down and begin wandering the neighborhood for a cheap dinner and some pastries to tide me over until the first stop on the next morning’s bus ride: Krakow. After finding a cheeseburger and fries, I stop at a Spar and buy an iced tea and a few of that morning’s pastries at a 30% discount. In bed, I lay awake in the humidity until I receive a notification that a close family member has been hospitalized. This jolts me upright and turns my stomach sour. A couple of hours pass, and the nerves in my gut only ease when I consider flying back home.
Around two in the morning, I find a round-trip flight from Budapest to New York via Kiev, leaving that morning and returning the day before I am to catch a flight to Belarus. I have to apply for a Chinese visa, and figure I can find the time to get one in New York instead of Ukraine, so I immediately book the flight then quickly fall asleep. The next morning I awake early, and I hop on the airport shuttle rather than return to Kelenfold. Solo travel means simple travel. In a snap decision, I would be returning home for the first time since early May, putting an end to this leg of traveling. Such flexibility would be difficult in a larger group.
In the early morning, I am one of the few with bags on the airport shuttle, as most of my fellow riders are young, attractive flight attendants, airport security agents, or duty-free workers. The bus takes me through the city, and at the airport I manage to get to the terminal in plenty of time, all the while scratching my yurt-borne bug bites.
I arrive late at night to my hostel, and reception is supposed to be closed for the night. Thankfully, I am emailed a code to enter. When I enter the lobby, the receptionist refuses to check me in, as he has already counted up the register, but points me to a bed and tells me to pay in the morning. Past eleven, the two-room hostel still bustles with activity as the post-bar crowd struggles into and out of the shower, does laundry for the night, and hydrates to stave off a hangover. I am the most tired, it seems, and after securing my items under the bed in the semi-dark, I fall quickly asleep despite the heat and sweat because I sleep naked under the duvet cover I have already stripped from the heavy down comforter. Hostel life, sooner or later, turns one into an exhibitionist. I sleep well and awake first.
In Bolivia, I had the pleasure of meeting a former Ljubljana free walking tour-guide named Barbara who was happy to give me a Sparknotes version of her schtick while on the free walking tour of La Paz. In many Slavic languages, including Russian and Slovenian, “Ljub-” means “love,” and so Ljubljana is often called the “beloved” city as a result. This title is well deserved. The charming Ljubanica River flows clean and blue along the riverfront walk that spans the city. High behind the banks, however, looms the city’s most impressive attraction: Ljubljana Castle. A funicular, which runs 1.5 Euros one-way for students, takes tourists to the top although the more active can easily surmount the various switchbacks that lead to the summit. Though views are spectacular, the museums and exhibits cost several Euros and do not appear worth it. I happily scale down the mountain as the heat begins to creep into the city.
At Spar, which I gather is the cheapest supermarket in the region, I buy some intriguing local pastries for breakfast. The most impressive is a fat Slovenian strudel that instantly waters the mouth of this apple-picking Nutmegger. The smallest slice feels like eating half an apple pie, and I am sustained until dinner.
When I return to the hostel, the administrator has arrived and she happily checks me in, complaining the entire time that the person last night gave me the wrong bed along with several other guests. She moves me further from the door, and closer to the window, next to where a gorgeous South Indian girl is on her laptop. I decide I have little to do, so I shower and sit across from her, tapping my keys, too, until we strike up a conversation.
While her family hails from Kerala, she holds a Malaysian passport and has been working in Croatia for several years after a brief, disappointing, career in law. She also, like so many folks who inhabit these hostels, exists in a state of transition between jobs that is filled with traveling and self-discovery. We buy beers and spend the day on the terrace along with a Serbian man, who barely understands what we are saying, but smiles and nods along. The administrator has stepped out and the Serb waits with us to beg to sleep on the couch, as the hostel is full and he doesn’t want to search online so he can secure a better rate. He disappears the moment the boss comes back and tells him the beds are all full.
In the afternoon, a couple of German vegan girls stop by and the four of us go to Metelkova, which is listed as an “art and cultural center” on Google, but is so much more. Like Copenhagen’s Christiania, Metelkova is an autonomous district where rules of normal life do not apply. The center is situated in a former military barracks, and spray paint, drugs, and drinking are a part of life like street lamps and coffee. We meet a friend of the Malaysian ex-lawyer, a long-haired man with a week-old beard and a guitar, the exact type of person one would expect to meet in such a place, and he begins singing songs about birds, trees, and whatever objects surround him. The German girls express a desire in buying food, so I leap into this opportunity to get out of such an uncomfortable situation.
For someone who sleeps almost exclusively in hostels, many of which are essentially communes, I find the idea of hanging around while a guy strums whimsical, unprompted ditties on acoustic guitar to be unjustifiably repellent. Why does every party, hostel, party-hostel, and hostel-party have to have so many of these people? I support musicianship, but I often believe live music should be treated like sex: either performed in private between consenting people or, if in a public arena, the audience should be very aware of what is happening. That is to say it should take place in the proper context. Music should also be performed in public strictly by professionals. By the time I return, I am tired, as I have eaten half my volume in vegan food and been cracking 75-cent beers with the Malaysian lawyer since early afternoon. It is time to turn in for the night.
It is early afternoon in Ljubljana when the bus that is to convey me to Budapest arrives late to the bus station. Though many travelers are waiting, relatively few board this bus and I, once again, have a row to myself. On the long drive, I book a hostel west of Budapest, as it is from there that I am to take the bus the following morning to Krakow, and then from there another to Kiev. Now, I am to move eastward until I hit Japan and the easy part being near done gives me a sense of the long road that lay ahead, through places few ever think to visit.
Where the Cops Bump Techno from Their Cruisers
I disembark at Nepliget station just as the sun is starting to hide behind the two- and three-story dwellings in east Budapest. The walk is long, but I want to experience more than just the Bohemian backpacker's metropolis of Budapest, so I happily walk instead of taking the much faster metro. Hungarian, a Uralic language, looks like nothing I have ever seen before. A distant relative of Finnish and Estonian, I feel I might as well be in Kurdistan. My hostel, according to Booking.com, is south of downtown. When I arrive, however, I realize I was only given the address of the check-in desk, not my actual bed. The receptionist informs me that my rooms is actually about a mile away, but I have to check-in and -out with him there. I am fascinated, and not even slightly annoyed. When I set out to find my bed, I am even more intrigued.
Simply getting to the apartment is a challenge. It is several blocks from reception, and I receive a paper map with a gray, zigzagging line to show me how to get there. When I arrive, I enter a code to gain access to the building’s front door. I take the elevator to floor number 0.5, then use my two separate keys to unlock the metal screen door and the wooden door. Both doors lock from both sides, and despite the obvious fire hazard, various signs instruct “DO NOT LEAVE KEYS IN DOOR.” The windows are also barred in the old Soviet-era tenement, so if there is a fire I either have to unlock both doors on the other side of the shotgun apartment in impressive time, or make peace with dying there. I spend a half-hour admiring the eccentricities of the tenement, which has two bathrooms and no sinks (except the one in the kitchen) and whose furnace looks like a mediocre high school kid’s sculpting project on cubism.
After that, I wander the streets where upscale bars, well-dressed young people, and inexplicably frequent signs for barbeque make me feel as though I stumbled into Austin, Texas. The Budapest police drive by every now and then, often with their windows down and upbeat techno playing, as the bar crowds mill about. The last thing I want is to drink, but many an internet source recommends that everyone visiting Budapest should see what is called a “ruin bar.” Half public art project and half watering hole, sipping a drink while wandering through a building filled with tacky decorations, graffiti, old appliances and oh-so-much-more can be a fascinating experience. In the bar I visit, a room filled with old, mostly-empty, bathtubs (excluding the tubs filled with napping tourists) sits near the exit, while some of the more remote rooms have psychopathic scribblings on the wall and creepy dolls with glass eyes. You won’t want to miss this place, one of Budapest’s hottest clubs.
Along the Danube, I snap pictures of the imposing parliament building, across the street from a bronze scultpure of shoes designed to memorialize the Jews killed in the city during the Holocaust. This part of town feels quintessentially European, while the walk from the bus station seemed oriental in a way that is hard to put a finger on. Magyar, or Hungarian, looks much like Turkish when written out, if like me you cannot speak either one. Both are Latinized, but with a similar assortment of accents and diacritics. Not to mention that swaths of town look untouched from the Soviet era. Where my hostel is, I only feel taken out of 1970s Hungary when I see a Starbucks or McDonald’s nearer to the city center.
After a plate of mushroom goulash, likely my first vegetarian meal since leaving home, I decide it is time to return to the makeshift hostel, take a shower, and turn in for the night. I am still the only one in the hostel. At least it seems I am the only one in the hostel. I hear rustling in the private room near the kitchen, which I always suspected might be occupied by either the superintendent or a guest who booked a private room. But since the area is sealed off, and on the kitchen side of the tenement, their presence does not bother me. What does bother me is the older Hungarian woman who appears from behind a door that I thought led only to a closet, after I had already sang a forty-minute rendition of “Take Me Home, Country Roads” while preparing for bed.
I am embarrassed, but at least I am clothed. She emerges from her room in a thin red negligee, and when she leaves to go to the bathroom I discover she also has an entire hostel room to herself. What other mysteries does this hostel contain? On the coffee table in her room, a stack of playing cards sit on a tablecloth she almost certainly brought from home. I have met many strange characters in hostels, but none more enigmatic than this elderly woman who books a bed in the cheapest hostel in Budapest, where she plays solitaire nearly naked until the American boy next door stops singing his folk tunes and goes to bed himself. One meets so many inspiring people on the road.
In the morning, I awake and start packing until the Hungarian woman starts talking to me… in Hungarian. I have no clue what she is saying, and she yells “kavé!” to me at least a dozen times before I make her type it into Google Translate. I feel silly I didn’t realize this means “coffee,” but of course it is early and I am sure she forgave me. After all, I haven’t had my morning kavé yet. Google Translate only further confuses me, because now I don’t know what she meant. Is she inviting me out to coffee? Or just trying to cop a cup off of me? Regardless, I had slept well, and since caffeine addiction is something that has never been able to stick to me, I have no desire for the hot brown bean juice that is all the rage these millennia. I shake my head, and she slinks off to slip into something a little less comfortable, while I duck out to the street.
The internet tells me I should visit Budapest’s Heroes Square for the express purpose of sharing it on Instagram because that’s, like, what you do. I am not on the ‘gram, but I go anyway because it is a short subway ride away, and it isn’t too far from the bus station. The scale is impressive, and only a few other tourists shuffle around with me, trying to get the best angles and the best light before carting back to the city center. The highlight of the experience is not the square, but seeing the simple mosaic subway stations that look old but are much too clean to be so.
I cannot deduce how to validate my ticket in the Budapest metro, which is done at a small machine that doesn’t look unlike a Purell dispenser in a supermarket. There is no one to ask, so I ride both ways on one ticket without any interference. The train to Nepliget station does not run on Sundays, a result of construction on the line, so I transfer to the replacement bus using the same ticket as well. Before I hop on, I try to use my extra Hungarian Forints at an Aldi, and end up overbuying as result of the sale price being the members-only price. I have to give several items, including a now-melted ice cream cone, back to the cashier, and he is not amused. Aldi has been too good to me, and I feel bad to let down the grocery store chain that has done more for me than any other. I board the Ljubljana bus with my tail between my legs and a couple measly Forints in my pocket.
In case you are wondering, Czech Republic and Slovakia are two separate countries, despite once being one under to moniker “Czechoslovakia.” Though the countries have split, relations have always remained friendly. So much so that the EU representatives for each country often vote for the other if he is absent; it has been described as the most 'amicable' national divorce in history. I look at passing signs, noting their languages are similar enough that those unsure can hardly tell which country they are in without checking GPS.
After checking into the hostel in Bratislava, which is inexplicably named after Freddie Mercury, I stroll through historic Michael’s Gate and begin climbing a hill to the city’s castle. Though exhausting, the trek is worth it, offering an impressive view of the city from the top.
I am coming to the end of Europe, so I elect to take part in the Bratislava pub crawl that evening. When I get back to my room to change, three young women, one from France, one from Serbia, and one from Russia, have settled into the dorm room and are keeping to themselves until I introduce myself for fear of going to the pub crawl alone. The Russian seems interested, but the Serb—who has lived in Bratislava for a short time—has already seen all the sights and commits to join me whereas the Russian disappears when it is time to leave.
The event runs nightly through a hostel in the center of town, and on the way the Serb tells me about her struggles assimilating into Slovakian life. As an ethnically Kosovar Serb, she faces pressure at home for not moving to Kosovo, which is supposed to feel like her homeland, while many people she meets abroad distance themselves because she has a Serbian passport and is viewed as dangerous. Though she regularly apologizes for her English abilities, it is clear she speaks well, demonstrated by the sheer amount she talks. I could hardly get a word in. I empathize with her plight. I try to tell her about how the last few years have made it more critical than ever that we learn to separate nationality and ethnicity from identity, this coming from an American. Worldwide, there is not only negative sentiment toward Americans and Serbs, but toward virtually every group originating from at least one other. The ability of Czech Republic and Slovakia to maintain a friendship encourages us, especially in a time where diplomacy seems to be an afterthought and politicians boast about thinking about their own people first. Especially the ones who hardly seem to think about them at all.
The pub crawl goes as well as can be expected. There are drinks. There are drinking games. The Serb ducks out after the first cocktail, but I decide I have to stick it out a little longer. It is not a pub crawl if you stay stationary. I have fun for the first twenty minutes and then a great wave of boredom and déjà vu blows over me as someone suggests we play “Never Have I Ever.” If you are not familiar, I envy you. The rules are simple: sit in a corner, answer questions while drinking, and pray it ends soon. However, I notice pub crawls are ideal in that dull conversations with broke, young, aspiring alcoholics must inevitably end when you move to the next bar. But at the next spot, all that is waiting for you is another where-are-you-going-where-have-you-been-how-much-have-you-drank-type conversation. I don’t even make it to the second pub, and head to the hostel after an hour or so following a craving for shawarma. At my drunken dinner, I realize how much the world relies on different types of people with varying beliefs and values to function. This is evidenced by the fact that the perfect drunk food—shawarma—has been brought to the world by a community that does not drink alcohol. I get teary, as I often do whether drunk or sober, when I think about how countries and communities, especially my own, refuse to accept visitors from certain countries based on race or religion. I hold back sobs as I enter my hostel and crash. That's right, I cried myself to sleep over world peace. I'm 'man' enough to say it.
In the morning, I realize I left my clip-on sunglasses across town the day before at a bodega. I have a few hours until my bus to Budapest, and wander around an open-air market for a half hour looking for a replacement. I find nothing worth buying, then stumble across a self-service restaurant for lunch. The crowd here seems much more working class, and I notice that several people actually pay in food stamps. For around 4 Euros, I get a large plate of meat, bread, and cabbage with a mug of Kofola, the local Coke, boarding the bus full of Slovakian food.
I awake from a four-hour dozing, courtesy of either the heat, my significant loss of blood, or a combination of the two, just as we are nearing Prague. I can’t help but think how happy I am to be in Eastern Europe. This whole trip practically has been West, either in hemisphere or in culture. That ends, and now I don’t have to pay 10 bucks for the cheapest thing on every menu. I also don’t have to feel bad about ordering meat and potatoes. As you well know, I am capable of being an adventurous eater. But weeks of culinary exploration leave a man wanting something dense and boring. Not to mention these things tend to be cheap, and there are few things that make me happier than excessive amounts of fried potatoes and enough salt to pickle my innards. There I go rambling on again about money and my vagabond vittles. You didn’t come here to read about my love for french fries. Pay no attention to the man behind the iron curtain.
I approach my hostel, but it being 7 a.m. I assume I cannot check in yet; I buy some coffee at McDonald's, then continue north and drop into a convenience store for a strawberry-pineapple-poppy-seed pastry and a water. In the Old Town Square, the humans changing into giant generic stuffed animals look like they are being eaten by anorexic abominable snowmen. There are few tourists around to take pictures with them so early, so they start their shift when it is still cool outside. There are, however, a couple of stag parties in sequined leprechaun hats who haven’t stopped pub crawling from the night before. The two parties, the stuffed animals and the stags, express not-so-subtle amusement at each others’ existence, as the headless bears chuckle in Czech, and the stumbling Englishmen point at them, whispering to one another with groggy bright faces.
I enter the Ananas Hostel on the second floor of a shopping mall, where one might expect to see a Cinnabon, and the receptionist allows me to stow my backpack there until I check in. The hostel conducts a daily free walking tour, so I descend the stairs at ten o’clock, after brushing my teeth in the lobby bathroom, and meet the young tour guide in charge. Also a paralegal, the guide immediately demonstrates his expertise and charisma by making jokes with those waiting and asking questions about who we are, where we are from, and so on. It is clear he has been doing this awhile. Throughout the tour, he combines funny historical anecdotes, jokes, cultural observations, and local advice. It is easily the best free tour I have taken. Halfway through, our guide stops at a grocery store and advises us to get a drink, preferably a beer as it is cheaper than water, so we can stay hydrated through the heat of midday. Sure enough, when I enter the store, a bottle of beer is half the price of Bon Aqua, so I grab a bottle. In a city where it is not uncommon to see people drinking in the city square at 7 am, I feel having a beer before lunch is less egregious. And for 70 cents, who can say no?
At the tour’s conclusion, I receive a card with restaurants, points of interest, and bars to make my stay in Prague as pleasant as possible, though the page is almost entirely bars. Of the five veritable restaurants on the brochure, a self-service restaurant called “Restaurace Apetit” is billed first as an authentic, affordable option for Czech food. Part of me feels I missed out in my routine avoidance of school cafeterias in my youth, so I head there. I have never been embarrassed to eat alone, as many people dread when traveling solo. In fact, I prefer it. In middle and high school, the cafeteria was a cacophonous place where there were hardly enough seats for people. So generally I would eat in the library, against school rules, because ducking a handful of librarians was much easier than avoiding conversation at lunch tables packed with talkative teens. In a self-service restaurant, I find peace. Often the only unstructured time where I can sit and either stare off into space, or reflect on my recent wanderings, I cherish an undisturbed meal in a cafeteria where there is no waiter to disturb my solitude.
When I arrive at Restaurace Apetit, the strong smell of paprika flows from the stove and over the sneeze-guard like a riptide. More than half the tables sit empty, as it is well after the lunch rush. I order goulash, which comes with coleslaw and vacuum-sealed, steamed white bread, and I am somehow drowned in flavor by such a simple meal. The prelunch beer, along with the goulash, exhausts me, and by late afternoon I feel like laying down. First, I stop by the famous astrological clock of Prague, which our tour guide believes deserves the title of “second most overrated attraction in Europe” (after the Mona Lisa). To be honest, I had no idea the clock was a “thing,” but I definitely think the hourly puppet show evokes a much more excited reaction among the hundred-plus tourists than it deserves. And, admittedly, if I had waited any more than 3 minutes I likely would be disappointed. However, since my passing by coincides perfectly with the passing of an hour, I am satisfied.
In the hostel, I sleep soundly that night knowing that I would have the room to myself until my roommates return somewhere between the hours of two and six am. Sure enough, when I awake all of the empty beds that surrounded me when I entered the room have semi-naked, still-drunk folks snoring with arms outstretched. I am the first to leave, ten minutes before check-out. Before I leave Europe, I resolve to take part in a hostel pub crawl, though binge drinking and walking long distances are two things I try not to do in conjunction with one another.
I have no choice but to stop for half a day in Munich, then catch a late bus to Prague. When I arrive in Bavaria’s capital in late-afternoon I want nothing more than to stuff my face with contemporary Germany’s monument to cultural hybridity: currywurst. Central Europe suffers under an oppressive heat wave and I am soaked through with sweat as I step into Gaststätte Bergwolf, an unpretentious sausage-and-fries joint where I order a paper placemat stacked with currywurst and fries, and a large Bavarian beer. I drink the liter bottle faster than any I have drunk before, and the alcohol and blesséd sweet-and-spicy currywurst sends me into dreams of hot samosas and tamarind chutney. I lay on a park bench in the shade for about a half hour to digest the next in a string of magnificent meat-and-potatoes meals.
My free, self-guided tour of Munich leads me to the inside of Asam Church (“Asamkirche”), an ornate, Baroque masterpiece built in the 18th century, as well as to the great plaza Marienplatz with its imposing Gothic architecture. I stroll through Hofbräuhaus am Platzl, Munich’s most famous beer hall where lederhosen and accordion music abound whimsically amid the dark undertone that Hofbräuhaus is where the National Socialist Party held their first meeting in 1920. The other tourists seem unaware, or at least disinterested, in this fact.
My night bus to Prague is to depart at 11:55 that night; it is now eight. The sky is to finally darken after ten today, so I sprawl out in the shade behind the Munich Residenz, in a carefully manicured garden, until ants begin crawling up my legs. The heat fails to subside despite the setting sun. It is over ninety degrees Fahrenheit and humid, and none of my fellow park-goers seek relief in the water features and cool alpine tributaries of the Isar River.
Back in New York, when it gets exceedingly hot, not only do people so famously pry open the fire hydrants for relief, but they flock to the nearest park fountains as well. As far as I am concerned, these public water parks are some of the last great testaments to the great American melting pot. Children from all neighborhoods, all backgrounds, can be seen splashing around, ankle-deep in the waters of Columbus Circle or Washington Square Park. On this night in Munich there are no kids, only twentyish years-ancient lovers strolling arm-in-arm among the just-as-photogenic flowers. And no one seems to be sweating like I am. Perhaps today was not the day to schlep across Munich instead of paying the likely insignificant bus fare, but I have much time to kill.
I come across a tranquil fountain by the opera house, and decide to soak my feet until I have to leave for my bus. The central urn, from which flows crystal-blue water, makes a sort of umbrella; the child inside me wants to lean against it and look out to the dark city from behind the liquid veil. I set my bag down and, just as I shuffle deftly between two streams of water to keep my shirt dry, I feel a sharp pain. Through the ripples below, I can see brown shards from pulverized beer bottles, at least one fragment of which has now lodged itself in the ball of my left foot. I limp out of the fountain. A block away, I retire to a well-lit cement bench, and begin to operate using a tube of Neosporin, my remaining bottle of water, and a small plastic pen-cap, until I am dripping blood onto the sidewalk from my aggressive deglazing. I notice that this wound is only an inch away from a years-old scar from when I stepped on dead coral in the Bahamas. I note the importance of donning sandals before wading into unfamiliar waters.
Between my surgical removal of the glass, and the violation of the shard itself, I have a roughly half-inch incision on my sole, which stops bleeding soon after I apply pressure. Thankfully, I have napkins and a Band-Aid with me, and am capable of limping my way to the bus station, after stopping briefly at a McDonald’s to fill my water bottle. My bus leaves on time, and I get a row to myself the entire air-conditioned trip to Prague.
That night, I wander the streets until I see something promising: a bunch of old men are hanging out in front of a bierhalle, and there is no menu hanging outside to attract tourists. When I track down the one waitress working the joint, the menu she gives me is in German, and the prices are, shall we say, almost reasonable for Switzerland. I end up ordering the house special wurst over shredded potatoes, and receiving one link of bratwurst (a pack of which I can buy for 2.29 at any American Aldi) atop a mound of shredded potatoes. This runs me about 20 bucks. Oh, And a small Coke costs me another five. If this is the pensioner’s Tuesday night dinner with the boys, I don’t want to see where the old men go on date night.
As I am cursed to spend another air condition-less night in a hostel bed by an open window, I figure I might as well make the most of it. This is (in part) a language blog, and I happen to be in the Canton of Grison, the only Romansch-speaking place in the world.
What is Romansch you ask? Romansch is a Romance language, spoken solely in the isolated mountains of Eastern Switzerland, where it originated millennia ago from the spoken Latin of the Roman conquest. The segregation of the Romansch language in this mountain canton leads many linguists to surmise that it could be the most similar living descendant of old spoken Latin. As a language learner, this gets me way more excited than the Colosseum, Trevi fountain, and St Peter’s Basilica combined, and I vow to find a speaker of this rare tongue before the night is over. However, the fact that only roughly 0.5% of Swiss speak Romansch means my search poses a much greater challenge than visiting any tangible, touristic Roman remnant.
Hip young people populate the various cocktail bars and restaurants lining the streets of downtown Chur. An endangered language, I know better than to search for Romansch where there are young people. I stumble across a Latin bar, across from my hostel, and step in to grab a beer and get my bearings. The slim Dominican bartender greets me in German and is surprised when I respond in Spanish, the greater Latin American dialect of which I miss dearly as it reminds me of my home on the fringes of a Salvadoran neighborhood in Norwalk, Connecticut.
I ask the bartender about Romansch, and she tells me there just so happens to be an almost pornographically polyglottal (my words, not hers) man at the end of the bar who just loves to jabber about language. He tells me his name is Claudio, and he has lost track of the number of languages he speaks. I readily introduce myself, and for the next hour we amuse ourselves with comparative barstool linguistics in Anglo-Franco-Spanish until his dinner arrives via some sort of German-Swiss Grubhub service.
During our conversation, I ask if he sees a future for Romansch, and expresses his belief that Romansch will ultimately go extinct in the coming generations. This hardly disheartens him, however. When I inquire what other language he believes Romansch to be most similar to, Claudio refuses to answer, saying “Romansch is in everything.” He argues that—though language may die—so much of its roots are Latin and can be found in other languages like Italian, Portuguese, and French. In this way language never dies, but merely rearranges and evolves, this inevitable process being hardly lamentable.
I allow Claudio to eat in peace. After I pay my tab, I begin wandering the streets looking for another bar, another conversation, until the dorm room cools and I can get to sleep. I find nothing promising, but run into Claudio again a half hour later as he is crossing the street to his car. I ask him if he knows of any other good bars, and points down the block, smiling.
“Down there. Second floor. Octopussy!” he calls whimsically.
A sign outside says Octopussy Kontaktbar. You may be able to gather from the name what a kontaktbar is. In Central Europe, kontaktbars are places to make the acquaintance of, or establish contact with, local entrepreneurs offering particular services for a prearranged fee. As soon as I step in, which I happily do simply for the experience, I realize that this is not at all what I pictured a brothel to be. The decor is tasteful, classy, and upscale, and more closely resembles a Prohibiton-era speakeasy than a cheap motel. None of the women sitting at the bar speak Romansch, and after conducting a brief survey I learn half of them are Ukrainian, the other half Dominican. When I realize I can buy an overpriced beer (10 bucks) and practice my Spanish, Russian, and primitive American English, they are happy to indulge my langage à trois for the next half hour until I am told “eto ne schkole!” (Russian: this is not a school!) from the madam. At that point, I finish my beer and give three “good nights” in three languages to the four ladies of the night who made my night in Chur so memorable.
It is so early in the morning that the time in Russian is described using the singular nominative case, and so only the brothels and shawarma shops are still open. I grab a post-brothel kebab, where the Syrian Arab carver inquires as to how I can order a chicken deluxe in Arabic, but not in German. I shrug, spilling yogurt sauce onto my pants, which I need several European-style wax-paper napkins to clean up. When I return to the dorm I fall deeply asleep and awake past checkout, grabbing a quick pastry and carbonated apple juice (the nectar of the Gods, as far as I am concerned) and walking to the bus station. There, I babble with a German-speaking drunk man who keeps picking up my wrists as if I am a marionette, as if to say "my my, you are so thin. You need to eat more!" For some reason I indulge him, hoping that I will be able to learn what he is talking about if I let him use my limbs as a visual aid. When my bus arrives, I say goodbye and he smiles, drooling a bit from the corner of his lip. To this day, I still have no idea what he was talking about.
I’m not sure what is doing this to me. Is it the heat? The forty-dollar train ticket? The forced 24-hour layover in Switzerland? Perhaps that wildman Neal Cassady, whispering to me from my dad’s hardcover copy of On the Road (Original Scroll!), has finally driven me mad, or else that the seeds of madness have always been germinating from within me and are now blooming under the Swiss sun. All I can say is that I am a new man, a changed man, who will start living life to the fullest. It has been well over a month since I left my home in Connecticut, and I have no plans on turning back. I have over a hundred countries left to visit, and my job today is to get the most out of Liechtenstein before heading back to Switzerland in the afternoon.
Liechtenstein is small, and famously so. It is neither part of the EU, nor of Switzerland, and is well known as a place that tourists visit just to say they have visited. If any native Liechtensteiners are reading this, take no offense: this country is the gold standard for obscure locales in thousand-dollar Jeopardy! questions. As a result, I view Liechtenstein as a formidable obstacle in my path to visiting every country not because it is hard to get to, but because it is hard to experience thoroughly. How can I be sure that my experience will differ substantially from any short visit into rural Bavaria or Austria? What makes Liechtenstein culturally unique, and how can I devour food that is authentic? At first, I go to Google.
Restaurants in the capital city of Vaduz (VAH-dootz), Liechtenstein are abundant, but finding an authentic place can be challenging. After stepping off the bus from Sargans train station in central Vaduz, I visit nearly every tourist attraction I care to visit within an hour’s time. A postal museum displays letters that landed on the moon, as well as stamps from over a hundred years of Liechtenstein’s history; city hall and the nation’s parliament are attractive, but far from impressive. I decide my quest to further understand the people and culture of Liechtenstein has begun. I walk into New Castle, a restaurant and bar which functions only as the latter at 2:30 in the afternoon. I chat with the bartender over a pint of vaguely local Swiss beer, and inquire where I can get better Liechtenstein food than lager with a side of peanuts. She explains that all of the restaurants in Vaduz tend to close between lunch and dinner, but I might be able to find an authentic place that is open somewhere in the town of Schaan. I have drunk but one beer, but I have eaten nothing yet today, so I figure I may as well catch a bus to Schaan, and since the buses don’t actually seem to require payment and I have no cash this will be a fun detour. I miss a bus going north by about ten seconds, and begin walking backward with my thumb outstretched in frustration. Schaan is only a couple of miles away, but book three of On the Road is the only thing other than Swiss beer giving me any sustenance so I channel Kerouac until a woman in her sixties pulls aside and picks me up.
After her awkward introduction in German, she lit up when I explained I was from the United States.
“I love the United States! I haven’t been there in such a very long time. I went to school in California, and I was in New York and Washington State.”
What she was doing in either of those places I did not ask. She was once a Kerouac, or student of Kerouac, or had friends who were Kerouacs. I could tell, and thus needed nothing more as evidence I would not be murdered by her. Few people other than us adventurers would be crazy enough in 2019 to pick up a hitchhiker. But hell, even fewer would be crazy enough in 2019 to be a hitchhiker. She boots me out only one mile into the two-mile journey, as she has to make a turn into a grocery store, but happily lets me off at a bus station where she says the buses run every ten minutes. It figures I can’t even hitch a ride to the only other city in this country; one mile is all I get. I wait.
I grow impatient after about five minutes, and the thrill of hitching leads me to stick my thumb out and try my luck before the bus gets there. As soon as my thumb goes out, a group of schoolkids come from across the street and start whispering, presumably about the foolish man who is hitchhiking in a town where the buses might as well run gratis. When they stand next to me, I put my thumb down. If I get arrested for not paying for a bus ticket, I don’t want them to add a “corrupting the youth of Liechtenstein” charge to my conviction.
The bus arrives, drops me off at Schaan, then closes the doors and drives away the moment I realize there isn’t anything much in Schaan. The bartenders won’t serve me anything better than a pint and a cheese sandwich, and I’m starting to get annoyed at this country. The Bavariennes I came across in South America told me I should get käsespätzle above all else while in Liechtenstein, and I am a firm believer that noodle cultures have an obligation to make such things available at all hours of the day. It’s not my fault I caught a late bus to Liechtenstein.
And 3 pm is hardly late! I try to hitch back south and end up taking a bus to the same supermarket where I parted from my earlier pickup. I grab a lunch of local pastries and juice, eating them on the bench outside the supermarket while I wait for the bus into Vaduz. Before I leave town, I make an effort to see an old covered bridge as well as Vaduz’ St. Florin's Cathedral, a generally unremarkable church, though it is air conditioned despite minimal traffic. On the bus ride to the train station in Sargans, I make sure to sit on the right side so that I can snap a picture of the nation’s prized Gutenberg Castle through the smudged bus window.
Victor Bernabei is just another millenial travel blogger. But here's the twist: He isn't a millenial! His goal is to see as many countries as he can, and spread the message that the world is not as scary as the news wants you to believe, and that there is beauty in all people, places and things.