Month: July 2016

27 Things I learned in Prague.

When the devil shows up to your tram stop it’s time for a selfie.IMG_4665

When the devil gets on your tram and looms in the back, you might consider getting off at the next stop and seeing if Jesus is on the next tram. You never know in Prague.IMG_4666

Sometimes shorts and pants have to meet somewhere in the middle.IMG_4447

If you stop in for a dessert and coffee in an Art Deco wonderland café you may never get your dessert. That’s okay, I’m sure there is a reason you didn’t get your apple cake…like the waiters suck.IMG_4573

If you are trying to decide whether you should get a Trdelnik in Budapest or Prague, it is no contest. In Prague, they put ice cream inside it. In Budapest, when you ask if you can get some ice cream inside the Trdelnik they say, “No,” and then ignore you like you are a Gypsy beggar. Get it in Prague.IMG_4585

There is never a bad time to be on the Charles Bridge.

Sometimes advertising for hot dogs is tough.IMG_4604

There is a very small and cool 9/11 monument next to the southwestern side of Charles Bridge.IMG_4605

Monks make good beer.

I’ll never get over seeing these little monuments all over Europe. These are located outside apartments and homes of people who were killed during the Holocaust. Look down as you walk the streets and you will see them.

The Vltava River can flood big time.IMG_4610

The Czechs have set up these floodwalls to prevent further damage. They have metal walls they can connect to this base when the waters start to rise.IMG_4611

The stained glass in St. Vitus’ Cathedral is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. I’m sure there are lots of good times to see the glass, but during the summer go as soon as the doors open (9AM) and move to the southwestern side of the cathedral. Most tour groups arrive around 9:30 so you’ll have some great alone time with this.

It isn’t hard to find the Lennon Wall and it is worth finding. I saw lots of people who were close to it and looking at maps. It’s right across from the French Embassy so follow your wine diviner and you’ll find it.IMG_4621

This sign means something: 1. Watch out for houses on sleds when you are driving on a soccer field, 2. Adults in Prague have tiny heads, 3. Your hands will be chopped off if you play soccer in Prague.IMG_4556

The best garden in Prague is hidden but worth finding. You will have to work to locate it, but once you do you can wander for about an hour and pretend to be someone special. IMG_4633

Kafka’s Head is the greatest piece of public art ever! I could spend hours watching this thing.

There is no better city for taking pictures with statues. Even if your wife thinks you are an immature idiot, it is worth getting a few gems for your FaceBook profile picture.

This does not mean there is an illuminati worship center in the airport…but it could.IMG_4693

Beer is inexpensive and really good in Prague, but this is just playing with fire.IMG_4694

There are lots of statues that are supposed to bring you good luck when you touch certain parts of them, but this is the kind of luck I’m not interested in.IMG_4544

This suit of armor is called The Draymond Green protector. (This is a joke that only .005% of my readers will get, but I’m okay with that.)IMG_4536

David Cerny created the Kafka Head and many other pieces of public art in Prague. This one is outside the Kafka museum. When it was first introduced you could text a message to the peeing guys and they would spell out your message in water. Yes, that is a map of the Czech Republic they are peeing on.IMG_1907

When you are trying to buy tickets to get into the Kafka museum and the machine printing the tickets breaks, and the guy who was selling tickets leaves his post to look at Kafka postcards without saying what is going on, and a tech guy shows up to fix things but can’t explain anything because he doesn’t speak English (which is okay because it is the Czech Republic), and the other cash register is for “T-shirts, posters, and books” only, you are permitted to say, “This is Kafkaesque,” three times.

Prague is a magical city. It is a city where men who are 5’3” can wear pants with these measurements. Yeah, even if it is metric his inseam is 10 whatevers longer than his waist.IMG_4474

This is what 80% of the food in Prague looks like.IMG_4661

Some people don’t take their jobs too seriously. “Did you mop the courtyard? The whole courtyard? Wow, that was fast.”

I’m glad I didn’t see this in Budapest. IMG_4587


Goldilocks in Prague

There is something perfect about Prague. I cannot put my finger on it. I don’t mean that the city is perfect, because it isn’t, but there is something about the city that is just right.


When we arrived in Prague we had visited seven pretty interesting cities but each of the cities had their flaws: Oslo and Copenhagen are expensive, Amsterdam’s weather could be better, Munich was too hot, Vienna was a little too opulent, Bratislava was a little small, Budapest was a little too Soviet Block, and then we arrived in Prague and it fit like two year old Birkenstocks.


Our hotel was in the Mala Strana (Little Side or Lesser Town) and will remain unnamed (Golden Star) because I don’t want you taking my room (33) next time I’m in town. One of the best things about Prague is that you would have to try pretty hard to overspend on a hotel. You could do it, but you can also find 300 hotels for less than $50 a night and I’m not talking about hotel rooms that are located next to the airport or near the meat packing district, these $50 rooms are going to be clean, well-located, and have free breakfast.


The next thing that is great about Prague is that you would have to try pretty hard to overspend on a meal. Czech meals are meat and gravy extravaganzas that are best washed down by the cleanest, freshest, cold beer you can find in the world. A platter of meat, potatoes, dumplings, slaw, and gravy and two beers will set you back about $10. (If you eat like this for a lifetime you’ll probably die by the time you get to the age of 50, but you will die fat and happy.)

The last wonderful thing about Prague is that there is always something to do. This is a city that opens early and stays open all night. The parks are vast, the collection of museums spans interests, and history oozes from every corner. Want to do an idiotic bar crawl? Well, hang out in the central square around 10 PM and look for the guys wearing the shirts that say, “The Greatest Night You Will Never Remember.” Want to see work by Mucha? There is a small Mucha museum and his great work The Slavic Epic is on display in one of the major museums in town. Like Kafka? Go visit his tiny house on the Golden Lane next to St. Vitus’ Cathedral, or drop into the Kafka Museum and learn about one of the world’s most interesting writers. Even if you are flat broke Prague is a town where you can have a great time. Wander the streets, get lost (which isn’t hard), watch people, hang out on the Charles Bridge, sit in a park overlooking the city, sneak into St. Vitus’ Cathedral with a tour group, and eat street food for a fraction of what it costs anywhere else in Europe.


Our visit to Prague wasn’t perfect, but it was just right. Maybe it wasn’t as great as I think, sometimes things seem better in the moment than they really were, but someday I’ll find out when I get back to Prague.




Prague Exchange Rate:Two hours of Hell, for Four days of Bliss.

The first two hours of our visit to Prague were the worst hours of our 28 day trip. We landed, moved onto the bus, transferred onto a metro train like travel pros, and then emerged from the underground with the problem all travelers face in new to a town, “Which direction do I go now?” Good thing I have been in this situation before, I know that underground travel has a way of getting you turned around so I looked at my path to the hotel using Google Earth the night before and knew that we needed to head uphill on the street outside of the metro station. It is a valuable lesson I have learned by making mistakes in the past. I told my wife that we would be faced with an uphill walk of about three or four blocks on cobblestones. (I travel with a backpack/suitcase thing and my wife does the rolly carry-on suitcase thing, so uphill on cobblestones is harder for her.) Here’s the part I didn’t anticipate, the metro station where we were and the trolley station where I thought we were are not the same place.

Screen Shot 2016-07-28 at 5.36.00 AM

I think these metro stops need a name change. Someone like me, an idiot, might mistake them for the same place. 

So we walked uphill and it was a long uphill slog, much longer than three or four blocks and steeper than expected, and it was hot and humid…really hot and humid. We tried to escape the sun but it was close to noon and the sun bore down on our poor pale Pacific Northwest skin. I was sweating like Patrick Ewing in the fourth quarter of a summer league game. About halfway up the hill, I began to realize that we were off trail and heading in the wrong direction, in fact I knew right where we were–in the castle garden about two blocks too far east and 100 feet too high in elevation. We could look over the castle wall and see the road we were supposed to be on, but here’s the thing, a castle wall is intended to keep people from breaching them easily so there were no stairs down to where we should be walking. I suppose they could add some stairs now that the chances of a siege is not very likely, but hey, I’m the moron who didn’t know the difference between Malostranska and Malostanske namesti. (This is when I also started feeling pretty bad for my wife, so I started dragging her suitcase too, not because she isn’t a strong and capable lady, but because I felt guilty for adding five miles to our three or four block walk.)

There were two options, cut our losses and turn around and head back downhill and then head back up on the correct road, or continue uphill until we reached a point where we could find some stairs downhill. When presented with a lose lose situation I usually pick the option that has the most downside. The one that only a stubborn person would pick. The option that indicates that it was somebody else’s fault. So, we continued on the path that I knew was the wrong path because when you think about it, all roads are connected…eventually.
Then it happened, I knew just how to get to our hotel. I knew the path we were on and the path to the castle had a connecting road just up ahead. (I know these things because I spend too much time planning my trips instead of doing things like mowing the yard and planning for my retirement…and I remembered that Tom Cruise ran down the connecting street in one of the Mission Impossible movies.–Yes, I have seen all of the MI movies even though each time a new one comes out I say, “I’m not going to see that garbage. I hate Tom Cruise.” And, then, two weeks later I’m in the theater watching a Tom Cruise movie and feeling a sense of self-loathing like when I say, “I’m going to work out and eat well today” and then by five I’m still sitting on the couch eating another bag of chips.) I had a burst of energy and we climbed the rest of the way with renewed hope…and that is when we ran into a closed gate that had a note that said, “Closed for Security reasons.” Was the security reason, “Tom Cruise ran down this road and we can’t have that?” I don’t know what the security reason was, but I do know that I will never hate a gate as much as I hate that gate. If I knew I had three months to live, I’d travel back to Prague, rent a car, and then drive it down the road and through that gate. Then they might have a real security reason to protect the gate. (I would do this at night when the gate is completely unguarded so I wouldn’t hurt anyone else, or get shot in the head.) I walked up to the heavily armed guard and asked him a question that I knew the answer to, “Can you open this gate and let us through?”: Nope. I asked him how I could get to the road five feet beyond the gate, “Walk back down to that stairway, climb it, walk through the castle and then take ten turns to get back to the location ten feet away.” (His English wasn’t really great, but I translated for you so you wouldn’t have to tolerate a Czech guard not knowing English as well as I do.)  So, I admitted defeat, I tucked my tail and added another moronic two kilometers to my three or four block stroll.



The view from our hotel. The offending gate is near the big tree to the left. 

When we arrived at the hotel life became magical: Our room was upgraded, champagne was served, and ten minutes later we were sitting in the hotel restaurant overlooking Prague, I was drinking what the lady in a nearby table described to her husband as “a really big beer,” and my wife was drinking a Lemonchello for the price of a stick of gum in Oslo.
Our terribly stupid walk was the only negative thing that happened during four wonderful days in Prague, my wife didn’t want to leave, and neither did I.


24 or 25 Things I Learned in Budapest

Keeping your metro pass and your phone/camera in the same pocket is a bad idea. 

I think this is where my metro pass was last seen in my wet pants.

Sometimes when your pants are really wet and you pull out your phone to take a picture of an old building you could lose your 24 hour metro pass. Do not ride the metro system in Budapest without a pass. You will get caught. 

Last seen in my pocket. Return to me if you find it on a corner in Budapest.

You can’t call your cafe a Cat Cafe if there is a limit to how many humans can enter the cafe at a time. The whole reason you have a bunch of cats is to get more than 10 people in your cafe at a time…come on man. 

If you run a Cat Cafe know that there is Ernest Hemingway the cat lover, and Ernest Hamingway who nobody cares about. 

There must be a law that restaurants that cook using a vertical rotisserie must employ two or three scary looking guys to sit in chairs on the sidewalk and talk into their phones. These guys must have violent foreheads and remind everyone of Tony Soprano.

Ruin bars are worth the visit, but waiting like a rational person in what appears to be a line will only allow sneaky old Aussies to get their beer before you.

Sneaky old Aussies need to know that when you cut in line you don’t get to order, “two beers…make that two beers and one lemonade…can you mix one of the beers with lemonade…no, I still want two beers, I still want one half beer and half lemonade…could I also get a water…no, I just want water from the tap…I don’t want to pay for it, I just want a cup of water…okay, then can I get an orange juice with some water in it…yeah, half and half, orange juice and water…hold on a minute, you charged me for a full orange juice…” This is a ruin bar not the Paris Ritz. (I’ll describe this guy in case he tries to cut in line in front of you: Skin like a piece of dried fruit, sweat soaked baseball hat, polo shirt, shorts, flip flops. I know that won’t help at all because most Aussies over 40 fit this description.)

Flip flops are not all-purpose footwear. 

The Great Market is a pretty good place to buy stuff. It isn’t as overpriced as the stuff on the walking/shopping boulevards and you might actually find something that is “hand made.”

In Budapest, “hand made” must mean touched by human hands.

The basement of the Great Market is where they put all the smelly foods. If you aren’t feeling well, I’d avoid the area completely. If you want to smell what a musty basement filled with kind of fresh fish and urine smells like, go down to the basement of the Great Market. 

There is one important year in Budapest 1896. It is when everything was built. If a building was built from 1944-1989 it is probably in the style of Stalin Baroque. Stalin Baroque takes the finest aspects of cardboard box style and mixes it with concrete. 

In Budapest, “Help Desk” are two words that apparently have no Hungarian translation. 

The Fisherman’s Bastion is worth the climb in the rain even though it will suck the life out of you for the rest of the day. 

The metro escalators are comically long. I mean it, and some of them travel at a speed that is so fast that stepping on them risks whiplash. I can’t believe there aren’t old ladies with broken hips splayed out all over the ground where the escalators end. 

If you are going to make your own Jorts (jean shorts) don’t get carried away. 

If you don’t go to the public baths you’ll regret it later. If it is raining and you just climbed to the top of the Fisherman’s Bastion and lost your metro pass, sitting in your room watching CNN to recover could be done while sitting in a warm pool of water. Well, you wouldn’t have to watch CNN, win win. 

If you want to see St. Stephen’s mummified hand, but you aren’t sure if you have to pay or not, wait for a tour group and then blend in. (Second pro tip: Get your pictures while the tour group is in the room, they turn off the light as soon as the groups leave.)

When you are going to take the bus to the airport, make sure you have on supportive undergarments. If you have kidney stones, this might be a cheap way to break them up. I think the ride is only about $4. 

Budapest is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. 

Budapest is a great “test” city for those of us who are from North America. It has a good mix of really different aspects, and comfortable aspects. If you don’t like Budapest, then I’d stick to Western Europe, if you like it then I’d say try Warsaw or Istanbul. 

Making a stairway like this is just plain mean. I stumbled on this thing about 33% of the time. I even began saying, “That last step isn’t a step. That last step isn’t a step,” as I walked down the stairs. That didn’t help when I came in to my hotel and lifted my leg to step up to the first step…

Nothing says Budapest better than this building:  Beautiful mosaics, fancy architecture, sex shop on first floor.

Budapest:When you gotta go, you gotta go. 

Maybe this has happened to you. You get on some public transportation. Things are just fine but you begin to wonder, “Did I put on deodorant this morning?” You roll through the morning In your memory…yep, I put on deodorant. “Maybe this isn’t my clean shirt. I thought this was my clean shirt.” You think about it…it is a clean shirt. “Did I step in dog crap before getting on the train?” You check your shoes. They look fine. The train comes to a stop and people get off and then you realize that those smells had nothing to do with you…well, if it is a hot day you have added your stink to the world, but for the most part your stink isn’t the type of stink that is as heavy as a wet bologna sandwich. 
I was thinking about smells in public places as I rode the bus out to the Budapest airport. (Which is a ride I would suggest wearing a jock or jog bra for because the last time the road was paved was in 1896.) After traveling for more than 20 days you begin to get a little rough around the edges. You might not pack as carefully, you leave the hotel without combing your hair, you check what you’re going to wear by smelling each item before putting it on, you don’t mind wearing the same socks four days in a row, and you move from place to place in search of something new for your eyeballs or stomach. This is the part of travel that I really love, when you get to the “I just don’t care any more phase of the trip.” Some people never reach this point because they travel with a suitcase the size of a Mini Cooper. I have three T-shirts, four pairs of underwear, two pairs of pants, a flannel, tennis shoes, flip flops, and three pairs of really worn socks. It’s enough for a 30 day trip. 
So as I was leaving Budapest I was thinking, “What is Budapest like?” There was no real answer for me. I haven’t been everywhere, but Budapest was what I hoped it would be, really different.

One of the evenings, my wife and I had the opportunity to meet up with a young couple living and teaching in Budapest, Ash and Dan. (I’d go into how we know them but then this post would start to sound like something my mother wrote, “Well, you know Ash. She Mitzi’s daughter. She lives in Budapest with Dan. Oh, you met Dan at that BBQ in Great Falls…) Anyway, I was looking forward to getting a little more authentic Hungarian experience and that is exactly what we got. We met up with Ash and Dan, took an old metro train out to an area that had a real Detroit/Cold War feel to it. There were Soviet era apartment blocks that the government had painted with murals of sports figures in action to give the area a more optimistic feel to it, but one coat of paint isn’t going to repair seventy years of boots pressing your head to the concrete. 
We walked through the neighborhood to the restaurant and then went in. We had a table upstairs. The tables and benches were made from big thick cuts of wood and the first four pages of the menu were all pig knee (or ankle) related. There were about 15 pages of Hungarian offerings 99.999999% were meat that was either slow cooked or deep fried. I went with something called Manoshevitlov’s Dream: chicken+cheese+chicken liver+broccoli deep fried with a side of rice. I also had a large beer and my wife and I split a bowl of the traditional bean soup. The waiter took our order wearing the same face he probably wore everyday to work in the salt mines in Siberia. The dinner conversation was really great, Dan and Ash had a couple gifts for us and we were thoughtless idiots who brought nothing to dinner. By the time the food arrived I needed a second beer. To say the portions were huge is an understatement. Donald Trump would have said, “Those portions are huge.” My piece of chicken was bigger than some Thanksgiving turkeys I have seen. 


I did my best to finish, but I’m not ashamed to say I didn’t tuck it all away. (I did manage to finish off my second large beer. Priorities.) When Ash called for the bill, the guy asked how we were going to pay. Ash and Dan had some Hungarian food stamp type things that they showed to the waiter. He said he’d go get the bill. He went downstairs and never returned, I mean it, he didn’t come back. I didn’t mind. I wasn’t in a hurry and it was fun to talk with Ash and Dan, but this is how service seems to work in Budapest…like an abandoned car. Eventually, we went downstairs and paid the bill, but our waiter stood in the corner looking at us like he was a KGB assassin. 
Ash and Dan walked us back until we could find our way and then we headed off. This is when I began to realize that I was going to have a problem…I drank two large beers and did not go to the bathroom. I estimated in my head, train ride+ walk to the hotel+ elevator ride…I wasn’t going to make it. I looked around, there weren’t too many people. The traffic on the nearby streets was light, there were a couple places near the overpass walkway that looked hidden enough, so I told my wife to bail me out if something went wrong. (This was her big chance. Getting out of a Hungarian prison has to be pretty challenging.) I walked over to the place I deemed most hidden and then looked around. You know when a place looks pretty hidden, but when you are there you discover that there are lots of people around? Well, there was traffic coming from two different directions, there were a couple people wandering around, and then there was a train coming the other way. In the end, I decided that it was now or never and got to work. Right about then, I could see my train approaching. I felt like I was in one of those silent movies where somebody’s tied to the tracks and the hero has to decide to save himself or save the person on the tracks. I raced through my routine and lowered the gas tank to about 75% and then dashed out of the weeds and made it onto the train. There was an older lady waiting for the same train who I think knew what was going on, but if you’ve lived in Hungary for more than 40 years this little episode wasn’t worth keeping an eye on. 
We made it back to our hotel without getting arrested and checked off another day on the Irresponsible Adult Trip. 

Budapest: This is my space, this is yours. 

There is a great deal I can say and write about Budapest, but let me begin with two little anecdotes from my days in the Paris of the East. (I’ll be adding a few more Budapest entries in the next few days.)
On my second day in Budapest, I had some extra food from a meal I couldn’t finish–if you like your meat with a side of meat then Budapest is your kind of restaurant town–so, since I am pretty much exactly like Mother Theresa, I decided to drop off my extra food with the homeless people who were sleeping in the metro station. When I came by with my goodies the homeless folks were all napping, so I left my little goodies by them in a bag so they would wake up and see the food and think, “Who is the great person who left this for me? He must be a tall angel wearing an Eddie Bauer rain jacket.” After I left the food, I got that warm feeling I get when I do something nice for someone else every ten years or so. 
When I returned about two hours later, after walking to the top of the Fisherman’s Bastion in the rain which is still number one on the stupid things I have done on this trip, the metro station was crawling with police. My warm feeling was drenched. At first I didn’t think much of it, because Budapest is thick with police. You cannot get on a train without being checked for a ticket, on the train there is about a 20% chance someone will want to see your ticket, and there is about a 50% chance someone will check your ticket when you get off the metro train. In other words, Budapest is serious about making sure you have paid for your ride. (While in Munich I never had a person check a ticket ever…and I bought tickets every time like a sucker.) 
As I walked by the gaggle of police and up the stairs, a strange thought crossed my mind, “I wonder if they are looking for me?” I did leave an unattended bag in a public place. I did it in a slightly suspicious way; I walked by, around, and then moved in for the drop. The bag was still on the ground, right next to a really big, scary looking police officer. The good news was that I made my way up the stairs and didn’t have to run like Jason Bourne through the streets of Budapest. (For the record, I think I could make it about 40 feet before twisting an ankle on the cobblestone streets in Budapest.)

The second anecdote happened about 10 feet from my first story. I wanted to make sure I didn’t make any mistakes buying a ticket to the airport, so I went into the “Help Center” in the metro station. I don’t like using these places normally because I like to think I am a pro and I don’t need help, but I really didn’t want to wrestled to the ground by Rudolfo because I didn’t have the right bus pass. I went in, pushed the little button that gave me a ticket so I wouldn’t have some Italian cutting in line in front of me, and was surprised to see that they were currently serving 171…I had the number 4. There were only two other people in the Help Center, so I stuck it out and before I knew it my number was called. It went 171–3–4…like one of the math problems on the SAT that asks what the next number is. I approached the helper lady and asked how to get to the airport. She took out a little map, “You go here. Then get on this bus. Then go to the airport.”

 I asked, “Isn’t there a train that runs directly to the airport?” 


“I thought I read there was one.”

“There is but it is with a different company.” Here is where I was tempted to say something sarcastic, but I don’t there is sarcasm in Hungary. 

“Okay, can I buy the tickets from you or do I have to use the machine in the station.”

“You can do either.”

“Okay, I’ll buy them from you so I don’t mess up.” 

She didn’t respond but started to click on buttons on her computer, which I assumed was to get my tickets together, but I wasn’t too sure and I had been in Budapest long enough to know that I wasn’t going to find out until she wanted me to. 

“1250 Florians.” (This is an estimate, I don’t remember. I think that was the cost, don’t use this blog as a guide to do anything in the real world or you will be in trouble.)

I handed over a 10,000 Florian note and she looked at it like I had handed her a dog turd, “Do you have 250 Florians?”

I did! I reached in my pocket, got my change out and reached across the countertop to put the 250 on her workspace…big mistake. 

“Do not do that! This is my space,” she indicated the space where I put the money, “This is your space. You put the money on your space, not mine.” She was not joking around, but I had a really hard time not laughing. The only person who talks to me that way is my wife. She handed me my change–in my space, and then gave me my tickets with the shortest possible explanation, “You use this for this, this is for this…good bye.” 

I wasn’t about to ask for more information, I think I had already over-drew my information account and didn’t want to get any more lectures about anything. 
I hope these two anecdotes can help illustrate how Budapest is different than other cities on the tourist circuit. Budapest has an interesting past with a great deal of oppression and so they are used to an abundance of police. (The police are friendly. The first person I met in Budapest was a police officer guarding the British Embassy. He gave me a great dinner recommendation and then shook my hand after I thanked him. “Welcome to Budapest. I hope you have a good visit.” That wouldn’t happen in Vienna.) But…the cloud of Soviet oppression hangs over just about everything in Budapest. The older people look about 30 years older than they are. NOBODY working in service jobs has any idea what, “The customer is always right,” means. During my three days in Budapest, I had some of the most awkward interactions with people who were there to help me…or not. 

Bratislava–It’s in Slovakia 

Bratislava is close enough to Vienna that people do a day trip to the capital of Slovakia and then head back to Austria before the sun goes down. There are river cruises and bus trips, and then there is how I ended up in Slovakia. My wife and I were picked up at our hotel in Vienna and driven to Bratislava in a fancy car by three lovely ladies. Sounds pretty good doesn’t it? Well it was. 
Two of the young ladies were ex-exchange students I knew from a few years ago. I was expecting to see Linda because Slovakia is her home country. Irene was a surprise. She lives in Madrid, which is not anywhere near Slovakia. (Okay if you were sitting on Mars, Madrid and Bratislava would look pretty close.) The third young lady was Linda’s friend and along to give directions and help Linda find her way around. What I noticed right away was that when people speak in Slovakian it sounds like they are fighting. It is the kind of language that wars are made from. (The Slovakian accent is almost exactly like Natasha from The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show.)

Our first stop was at a castle, Hrad Devin, where the Morava River meets the Danube. This place is amazing. They believe it was established as early as the 5th century BC. I don’t know how they determine these things since Wikipedia hadn’t been invented yet, but figuring that stuff out is not my job and therefore I trust these so called experts. There was a little museum inside the castle where they had laid out all the stuff they found from all the ages and it was pretty cool. (Once the lady behind the counter found out we were Americans she started trying to sell us all kinds of fridge magnets, books, and postcards. She was really disappointed when I passed. I think I got an eye roll from her.) The exhibit focused on the slow transformation of making pots from clay to then working with bronze. It is almost miraculous to see pots made from easy to work with materials and then see the next step and the next step, like the first person who said, “I wonder if putting an onion ring on a hamburger is a good idea,” and then someone else said, “But what if you also put BBQ sauce on that?” I don’t know who first discovered that heating dirt makes it melt, but he/she must have been a pretty smart person. Since then, we have been turning that stuff into things to kill other people with, we are a creative bunch. Mankind hasn’t changed all that much when you take the long view like Carl Sagan and I do. 

Here’s the important part, if you are going to Bratislava you must go to Hrad Devin, it is super awesome, and I got to shoot an arrow at a target. (I missed. The bowstring hit my left arm so hard I had a big bruise for two days.)
After the castle it was off to downtown Bratislava. We parked at a mall that could be dropped in any major American city and be pretty swanky looking and then walked along the riverside to the historic city center. The riverside is really cool and there were lots of restaurants with seating alongside the water. The historic center is one of those places that time seems to have forgotten. Lovely, really just lovely. Winding little cobblestone streets, fountains, and some of the coolest statues you will ever see. The Slovokians have a little bit of a sense of humor. 

We ate lunch at a traditional restaurant. I ate some meatball things covered in some type of dumpling stuff and accompanied by a sweet and sour cooked cabbage deal. My wife ate a plate of pasta with a Slovakian cheese sauce that Linda said most people don’t like at first, but it was good too. 
After lunch we began a grueling up hill climb to the other castle, the new castle, about 10,000 feet above the city. It was hot, it was steep, I am old, and we eventually made it to the top. The views were worth the climb and if I were 30 years younger I would not have felt like I was going to pass out from exhaustion. 

We took a bus down the hill and went to the train station. I had to buy a train ticket for the next day and you can’t do that online because…I don’t know why, but you can’t. So you have to go to the train station, and buy a ticket like the old days. Linda did all the ordering, and when I insisted on reserving a seat the ticket lady didn’t look pleased, actually she never looked pleased, but I got my tickets and reserved two seats. (Here’s a life tip for all you rookies out there. If you are traveling by rail in Europe during the summer, RESERVE A SEAT! Especially if your train is leaving in the afternoon. Early in the morning, before 9am, you’ll probably be okay, but once the dirty-backpacking-across-Europe-on-a-Eurail-pass kids roll out of their flea infested hostel bed there will be zero seats for people who aren’t willing to body slam someone else for a seat. It costs a couple extra bucks and when you are taking a four hour train ride you’ll thank me.) 
Linda then drove us to her hometown. It was really interesting to see the Slovakian countryside. It is a poor country. People look worn out, the houses look worn out, the streets are worn out, but being a part of the EU will slowly transform this sleepy little country. Linda’s hometown is about 20,000 people and about 45 minutes from Bratislava. For dinner Linda took us to the golf course. I have never had dinner at a nicer golf course. This place is amazing. It is a Jack Nicholas designed course and was the type of place where if it were the US someone would have come up to me and said, “Sir, you know you don’t belong here. It’s time for you to leave.” Instead, I ate dinner overlooking the 18th’s green (an island) and not one golfer hit it into the water. 

It was a long day for the old people, but it was also a day I will not forget. 

Linda, Irene, and two old people.

Vienna: Keeping Things like 1780 since 1941

The Viennese are a little aloof, this happens when you rule Europe for several hundred years, but it isn’t a bad kind of aloof it’s just that the people aren’t super-American friendly. Imagine what the world will be like in another 20 years where everyone has spent 40 years on Facebook, listening to their favorite iTunes mixes, and writing blogs about their daily existence…in other words, moving to the point that everyone is the center of their own universe. I know that sounds negative, but it really isn’t meant to sound that way. I really like Vienna, but maybe that says more about me than about the city. 

What Vienna offers the traveler is a collection of some of the best museums in the world (ruling Europe and stealing everybody’s stuff has it’s benefits), a music history that is unmatched, and lots of really cool old buildings built back when Vienna was the center of the world. Now don’t tell the Viennese that Vienna isn’t the center of the universe because I’m pretty sure they still think the sun circles Austria, and again, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing because Vienna has done an excellent job of freezing time circa 1780. 
The visitor to the city has some big decisions to make, what do you do when there is so much to do? Inevitably you will be asked, “Did you do_____________?” And you will have to say, “No.” Because you can’t do everything there is to do in Vienna. Chose carefully, but then again, don’t worry too much about it because you really can’t make a bad decision. Went to the Leopold and not the Belvedere, oh well, the Leopold is pretty awesome…and so is the Belvedere. With this in mind, I planned carefully where I would be going and then life interfered with my plans and Vienna was set upon by catastrophic storms where the wind blew like mad and rain fell so hard I thought the sidewalks might be damaged. 
So, you ask, “What are the must sees in Vienna?” Okay, for once I will give a little advice. I think you must go to at least two art museums, you have to roll through the opera house, you must visit one of the famous cafes, and you should ride around in one of the trolleys that ride around beside the famous buildings. Then walk through the old town and get lost, it isn’t hard. Eat some street food and then step on the scales that seem to be next to all the street food vendors. (Yes, that’s right. You pay 20 cents to weigh yourself in Vienna. I don’t know why, I don’t really care, but the message is clear–you are fat.)

I put this advice to use and had three pretty productive days in Vienna. We took a tour of the Vienna Opera house. Where they have 180,000 costumes, and put on so many different operas each year it is slightly mind numbing, but you can go to the opera during the season for $3 and dress like a slob. The guide said what I was wearing would be fine. They also put on a ball every year that our guide said would cost you somewhere between $20,000-30,000, so I’d put that in the maybe category if I were you. I really can’t think of a bigger waste of money–pay that much to dress up and dance. I’d rather spend my hard earned money doing something fun like eating for an entire year, but our guide said the tickets are sold out six months in advance so as PT Barnum said, “Some people are so stupid they think the USA is going to build a wall and Mexico is going to pay for it.” 

I went to two art museums: The Belvedere and the Kunst Historisches Museum (Art History Museum). I selected the Belvedere because it has Klimt’s The Kiss. It is one of my favorite paintings, but they don’t let you take pictures of the painting because there is a room right next door where they have a terrible poster of the painting where you can take pictures if you want a picture of a poster. I have two posters of The Kiss in my classroom if you want to roll by and get a pic there too. I also like that the Belvedere has a good selection of Klimt’s other work including really early stuff that is photo-realistic. So all you Klimt haters can see that this dude could really slap that paint around with mad skillz. 

I picked the Art History Museum because they have an awesome collection of Bruegel paintings (The Tower of Babel is righteous) and have Vermeer’s Art of Painting. The Bruegel paintings are all hanging in one room, but they have hidden the Vermeer so you won’t just run into it. I’m serious, you have to walk around behind a closed door and through three tiny rooms just to find it. I would not have found it if I hadn’t reached the end of my visit and gone, “Where the hell was the Vermeer?” I then retraced my path like Hansel and Gretel and found it hiding. If you want to play a dirty trick on people then hide one of the best paintings you own in a closet. It is probably the best Vermeer because it is bigger. (That’s art critic talk for you people without a proper education.) The Rijksmuseum has a bunch more Vermeer’s but there are always 100 people standing in front of them, maybe that is why the Viennese have theirs hidden in a dark corner. 

Over my days I squeezed in the two most famous cafes in town: Sacher and Demel. These are very different spaces and let me warn you upfront, you can drop some big change in these places. We tried the Demel first and there are about 400 rules to eating there. First, walk into the cafe, go by everyone and walk upstairs. There will be a much shorter line there. You will still wait but the cafe experience is about waiting, so play some solitaire on your iPhone or take pictures of your shoes accidentally. We waited about 20 minutes, sat down, and then ordered our drinks. Then you have to stand up, leave your stuff and walk over to the girl behind the dessert glass. Tell her what you want…90% of the people get the chocolate torte so I got the apple strudel because I’m a rebel. The dessert girl will give you a little piece of paper and then you take that back to your table and hand it to your waitress. 20 minutes later you will get your desserts and they will either be worth the wait or not. I ordered a big beer to drink to pass the time. I was the only person drinking a beer in the place and I was also the only one who ate the apple strudel…which wasn’t as good as other apple strudel I have had. I wanted whipped cream on it but I guess that isn’t done. It was done in Inglorious Bastards so I guess Tarantino has some explaining to do. 

The next day we went to Cafe Sacher and I had the time of my life. First off, we were seated right away. It was about 11am. I was dressed like a slob but nobody looked at me like I was a deviant. Then as we got our seat we were treated to the best one Act show ever put on at Cafe Sacher, which is saying something because there have been some pretty happening things that have occurred at Cafe Sacher. (Grace Kelly ate here, JFK, Emperor Franz Joseph, Queen Elizabeth, and it was in the movie The Third Man.) As I was saying before I interrupted myself, I sat down and right away heard our neighbors complaining to no one in particular about their bill. I could understand them because they were American and talking in that familiar dialect called English. They had been drinking coffee like madman and now had a large bill to pay. These poor folks were operating under the impression that they were at the local coffee shop where you get unlimited coffee…and they were at Cafe Sacher where each cup costs five Euros. They each had five cups. The lady said, “No wonder they were here so quickly to replace our coffee.” Yeah, that’s it, this place is hard up for cash and thought they would soak a couple rubes and squeeze a few extra Euros out of them. My wife and I have been married long enough to know when it is time to talk and when it is time to listen/eavesdrop. This was eavesdropping time. We did order our food, after I asked the waiter if it was too early to order the tower of Sacher treats. “Oh, no, now is a good time,” was his response. It reminded me of the time I asked a German waiter if I should have beer or a strudel for dessert, “Why not beer and strudel?” He said. By the time the couple got up to leave we learned a lot about them: they were staying at the Hotel Sacher, they wanted their bill reduced, they thought the hard boiled egg was not hard enough, and then there was a misunderstanding about what room to charge the bill to because the room they gave was not the one they were registered in. Anyway, it was worth every cent of the tower of treats. (By the way, the tower of treats costs half of what our neighbors drank in coffee. It would be poor behavior to discuss the actual cost–22 Euros–because high class people don’t talk about money.) After couple #1 left the table, my wife and I were having such a good time. Maybe it was the chocolate, maybe we are just the right people for each other, maybe it was because we really shouldn’t be eating in places this nice, but anyway, the lady sitting to the West of us said, “Enough laughing you two.” She was also American and from Seattle…and soon we found out we knew a bunch of people who they knew…there you go, you travel all the way to Cafe Sacher to meet some people you probably already knew. (My wife said that the chocolate torte at Cafe Sacher was much better than the one at Demel, and my wife knows a lot about chocolate.) 
After our visit to the cafe, we walked around the old town and got lost. We walked into a bunch of churches and looked at the bits and pieces of dead people stored in pretty awesome boxes and enjoyed our freedom to just get lost. There are plenty of churches in Vienna and St. Stephens is the only one where you have to pay a little bit to look around. The rest of them are cool with you coming in and looking at their art and relics, but don’t walk around talking on your cell phone like an idiot.  

The highlight of my visit was going to be an evening outdoor opera that the city puts on every summer. I was really (I’m not lying) looking forward to sitting outside and watching a bunch of people singing songs that I hadn’t really heard before, but the damn Euro Cup cut the outdoor opera season short and I only got to see one opera for free: La Boheme…and that is only half of the story. The best part of the night was what happened before the opera. 

One of the best parts of the opera experience isn’t the opera itself, it’s the fact that lots of restaurants set up little booths and serve food and drinks. This isn’t a paper plate kind of deal, these meals are served on plates and glasses are filled with beer and wine. I like this kind of thing, eating and drinking. Anyway, because this was the first night of the season, it was crowded. (I’d bet it’s always crowded.) It was so crowded that finding a seat to eat your fancy meal was challenging, so humans being human started staking out their territory. I had an advantage, my wife. So we found a table, she sat down and saved our spot and then I went hunting and gathering like the old days. Other people dashed around like a really big game of musical chairs looking for a place to sit down. Two people decided that they would “hold” their seat by putting their meals down on a table and then come back with their drinks. This is something that wouldn’t happen in America because someone would probably steal your unattended food. And guess what? The same thing happens in Vienna. 
There was a lady walking around waiting for her chance and when she found it she pounced. First she shoveled everything into a plastic bag she had for such fine dining experiences, and then she realized she had plenty of time, so she ate the bits she missed tossing in the bag and then strolled off like nothing happened. I took pictures of the whole thing because I am a bad person who found the incident pretty awesome. If it had been my food, I would not have thought it was funny at all, but I’m not stupid enough to leave my food out for someone to steal. I don’t trust the better angels of mankind. Could I have stopped the lady and reported her? Sure, but I don’t think she was doing this because she had a gambling addiction, she looked like she needed that meal more than the idiots who left it there. 

I’m no criminal, but I would figure once you get your food it would be a good time to hightail it outta there, but this lady stuck around and kept at it. I don’t know if she got any more food, but she was still on the lookout for more. It probably got easier as the night went along because people tend to drink a fair amount when they are about to watch a free opera. I’m not saying that you need to be drunk to enjoy opera, but it might not hurt. 

Eventually, La Boheme started and I think there was one song I had heard before, but Opera isn’t one of those deals I really get. The music doesn’t seem to match with the singing and I don’t understand what is happening 80% of the time, but I do get to say, “When I was in Vienna I saw an Opera…La Boheme.” I probably won’t say I left early because it was cold and that I ran out of toothpaste and all the stores were closed because that will make me sound like an idiot. 

Hey Munich, Let’s put on some pants.

If there is a stereotypical version of Germany it is Munich. Munich is all the things that Americans think about Germany: Beer, sausages, oompa music, lederhosen, and young kids walking around in soccer kit. It would be too simplistic to say that is what Munich has to offer the world, but if you are visiting for a few days I’d be surprised if you came away from the city without drinking at least one beer, eating one sausage, hearing at least one oompa song, seeing someone in lederhosen, and at least 10 kids wearing soccer kit, but Munich has more to offer the world than great beer and oompa music, it has some great museums, one of the world’s best public parks, and plenty of ways to kill time. 
My wife and I were looking forward to seeing the city, but we were really looking forward to seeing our German daughter, Maike. Maike stayed with our family five years ago and she took some time to come down to Munich to play tour guide and show us around the city. We had three great days of catching up, eating really good food, and walking until the rubber on my shoes wore out. Maike made our visit extra-super-fantastic. (The only German word we picked up was super which is pronounced with a z like zuper. So I added another language to my resume of fluency.)

Most of our time was spent in the English Garden because it was very hot. The garden has at least two beer gardens, plenty of green space to run and play, and a river and canal to swim in if you need to cool off. There were a bazillion people hanging out in the park and we spent one day cooling off in the beer garden and one day sitting next to the canal with the rest of Munich. The only thing that can spoil a nice time like this is a naked old man or two. I don’t know why this happens, but it seems like there are a few guys who always think, “You know what? Not enough people get to see me naked.” In reality only one person should be seeing that guy naked, himself. Why punish the world with your obvious lack of exercise and dining restraint. Hey, I’m not perfect, but I keep my shirt on in public…and pants too, if you were thinking I might be running around with uncovered nether regions you are wrong. 
So while I was enjoying the sunshine by hiding in the shade with my wife, we were entertained by at least two older guys who needed to dip their twigs and berries in the water without any clothing restraining their man region. There is one good thing about these guys showing off their bodies by Elvis…I feel better about myself. 

The English Garden does have some explaining to do. Why is it an English Garden and why is there a huge Chinese pagoda sitting in the middle of the world’s largest German beer garden? These things probably have some historical rationale, but that might mean I would research something for my blog and if you’re here for the first time that will not be happening. 
Munich is also a great for just walking the streets (and I mean this in the most innocent way). The tall buildings provide shade and we were able to see tons of interesting old stuff. The streets around our hotel were crowded with people enjoying the Christopher Street party. I assumed Christopher Street was some German dude who had experienced some form of hatred for being gay, but through some research called posting bad information on Facebook I came to find out that Christopher Street was the name of the street where the Stonewall Riots/Protests took place. So for three days we walked through the throbbing crowds of drunk people dancing to techno music and wearing odd outfits, in other words, a normal weekend in Munich.

Munich looks really old, but most of it was rebuilt since 1945 because the USA dropped a few bombs there. (The next 6-20 sentences are completely wrong as far as recorded history goes, but a rewrite won’t happen because these italicized words are fair warning.) Munich was also part of the GDR (East Germany, the bad guys, during my high school years). The 1972 Olympics were held there and if you don’t remember how that went then you need to Google “1972 Olympics” read that and then read about “1972 Olympics Basketball.” If you are from Oregon you probably know the 72 Olympics as the Olympics where Steve Prefontaine almost got a medal but lost because he tried too hard. I could go on about Mark Spitz and the poster I wanted of him with his gold medals since my mom wouldn’t let me get the one of Farrah Fawcett in the red bathing suit, but my point isn’t how I wanted posters I never got and how the 1972 Olympics is burned into my memory, it is that East Germany was our enemy. Less than 20 years later Germany reunified and our nations became BFFs. This is what gives me hope for the future. Could my children someday visit Iran and see where the American Embassy hostages were held? Could they go to North Korea and see the Sea World where all the animals (fish?) were trained by Kim Jong Un? The world always seems like a big scary place with lots of people trying to kill each other and when you get out there, away from your televised news, you find out that the world is full of people just like you: Same fears, same passions, same need to be loved, and the same need for a shower and a shave.

So, I leave Munich with a feeling of hope for the future…unless Trump gets elected…then I’ll be moving to Mars with Matt Damon and farming potatoes. 

Damn…Amsterdam, 19 Random Amsterdamian Things

  1. I ate a pancake in the smallest restaurant in Europe. (Just like the Beastie Boys.)
  2. A pigeon hit me in the head as I walked through Dam square. This was odd for a couple reasons: The Dutch are as tall as me therefore the bird should have had plenty of practice around guys my size, I was standing still so it wasn’t even close to my fault. The only explanation is that the bird was stoned like the rest of the kids under 30 at Dam Square. 
  3. If you legalize pot in your state (Washington, where I live is one of the US states where you can buy left-handed cigarettes) Amsterdam’s casual drug use isn’t shocking at all. Now the prostitution…that’s another deal. 
  4. You can rent a booth in the red light district and go into business…I think. There were lots of “Rent me” signs in empty booths in the red light district. This surprises me because I thought the sex workers had lots of regulations to follow. So, if you are looking for a way to make a little extra spending money on your vacation…

    This lady wouldn’t move so I could get a better picture. She probably waited in line.

  5. The Van Gogh museum has online tickets…do not stand in line like an idiot. 
  6. The Rijksmuseum has tickets online, but there wasn’t any line at all. 
  7. The Anne Frank museum is not over-rated. You must go, but get your tickets about 60 days in advance or you’ll be waiting in line with the rest of the rubes. I think the website opens each months reservations on the first day of the month. For example, I bought my tickets for July 7th on May 1st. 
  8. Those auto-massage chairs in the airport are worth the 2 Euros. 
  9. Running up an escalator to pass time in an airport at my advanced age was funny for the first 30 seconds, but when I went crashing to the ground the two old ladies who were watching me were pretty scared. They said, “Are you okay?” How did they know to speak to me in English? Hmmm…probably because any European would know better than to do something that stupid. 
  10. No matter where I go I end up sitting in front of someone who is messing with my chair. They guy on our flight from Amsterdam to Munich grabbed my seatback three times to pull himself up to standing. The flight took an hour, nobody needs to get up that many times. It was like he was trying to launch me over a castle wall. 

    I got bacon and cheese, which was good, but my wife was smarter.

  11. Get the strawberries and cream pancake. 
  12. Eat a strupwaffle. Actually eat five of them. 
  13. Dutch is the funniest of languages. 
  14. Amsterdam needs better man-hole covers. 
  15. The liquids on planes thing is more strict in Europe, but you can take your pet rock with you.
  16. Canal tours with The Damn Boat Guys is really great, and not just because I got some free beer. 

    You migh pay 2 million Euros to live here and your neighbor might be on state assistance.

  17. The Dutch mix their housing. Wealthy people live alongside people who have subsidized housing. “Isn’t that how it should be?” our boat guide asked. Yep, that is how it should be. 
  18. If you find yourself in a Turkish restaurant where no one speaks your language, do not try the yogurt drink. Sometimes trying new things has a cost. 
  19. Old paintings and statues of musicians often portray them as drunks…things haven’t changed too much in 500 years.