Category: Travel

Adventures and Misadventures.

Brain Research in Europe

The brain is an amazing blob of goo. It remembers, it stores, it draws up memories while you are walking down the street about the time you were in 7th grade and lost your voice while trying to talk to a girl you thought was pretty, and as we age it starts to betray us. Like all the bits and pieces of the human body there are ways to lengthen the longevity of your brain until the inevitable day when you fall in the kitchen and break a hip.

One of the best ways to keep the old noggin fresh is to experience new things. Your brain can get lazy if you do the same thing everyday, new experiences create mileposts in your mind. For example, think about what you ate for breakfast last Tuesday; now try to remember what you ate for breakfast when you were in Oslo three years ago. That Oslo breakfast is stashed in there because you hadn’t realized salmon could be served in 12 different ways, or that salmon was one of the cornerstones of a good breakfast. It was a new thing and your brain made a little marker so the next time you experienced it you wouldn’t stand there staring at the salmon wondering what the hell to do. (This probably has something to do with evolution and preventing you from getting eaten by a Wooly Mammoth, but I don’t want to stash too much science into my blog, because we all know science is boring.)

The brain can also get worn out when it has too much new stuff to milepost. Reading something challenging can make your brain tired. (I have officially given up on Infinite Jest and am currently seeing other books after dedicating myself to reading it over the summer…my Kindle says I made it 10% of the way through and have 44 hours left. Pathetic.) Doing difficult math, memorizing the periodic table, and learning a new computer program are all ways to stretch your gray matter so it remains alive and kicking, but the best way to pump your brain up is travel.

Travel bombards your brain with new experiences, unless the travel you are doing is to see all the Wal-Marts in the USA. A new city is full of new experiences and your brain is alive with activity, it is one of the reasons why travel is exhausting and it is one of the reasons why travel can push your date with the kitchen floor off for a few years.

BUT…

There are some things that I believe we should all agree to keep exactly the same everywhere in the world because I am done learning about toilets, showers, public restrooms, and cutting in line.

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This picture has nothing to do with this post, but I couldn’t resist adding to my blog. I almost walked by this photography studio in Vienna without getting a picture. Aren’t you happy I stopped? 

Toilets

The European toilet is something I have spent too much time thinking about. Maybe because I had lots of alone time to consider why the toilet engineer decided that designing it like this was the way to go. In Austria there was a dry porcelain platform in the toilet for some unknown reason. In other countries there were toilets with two buttons, one button, a lever, infrared sensors, and various levels of water in the bowl.

These differences might seem minor and easy to navigate, but after a long day walking all over Prague the last place you want to make a mistake is in the bathroom of St. Vitus’ Cathedral. I’m not asking for too much, I just want a standardized toilet for the world to use. (Bill Gates has also spent a lot of time thinking about toilets, so I’m in good company. http://www.gatesfoundation.org/What-We-Do/Global-Development/Reinvent-the-Toilet-Challenge)

Think about how many directions there are for using a toilet in an airplane, and people still get it wrong. Some idiot threw a diaper in the toilet on my flight from Stockholm to NYC. The diaper got stuck in the metal flapper that opens to allow the waste to get sucked into plane’s belly and created a real moral dilemma for those of us who like to leave things better than we found them.

I don’t care what type of toilet we agree to use, but please don’t choose the Austrian toilet.

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The dreaded Austrian toilet. 

Showers

I took three cold showers in Amsterdam. I didn’t take them because I had been out wandering through the red light district; I took them because I couldn’t figure out how to turn the temperature up from where the last person using the shower left it. (I stayed at one of those places with a shared bathroom.) In Copenhagen, the shower was like a tiny bathtub with an upper and lower area. The person who designed this shower must not have been Danish because form did not follow function. I couldn’t stand in either area because it wasn’t flat and I didn’t want to be rushed to a hospital in Copenhagen naked and half covered in frothy soap. Maybe if I was as athletic and as small as Simone Biles I could stand in one of the levels and have a shower, but I’m not an elf sized sprite, so I spent two days trying different showering techniques. Nothing worked well. I felt like a baby in one of those plastic baby bathtubs parents use for the first six months of a child’s life except I am not a tiny baby and nobody was pouring cups of warm water through my soapy hair saying, “That’s a good boy.”

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Danish design?

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Take a cold shower and just in case…

In Vienna, Prague, Budapest, and Munich the showers were all similar so I know that Europe can get a standard shower method together. It really isn’t that difficult.

 

Public Restrooms

In Prague, next to the Astrological Clock —one of the busiest places in the city—I saw a young girl (6 or 7, I’d guess) squatting to pee into a gutter. The look on her mother’s face is what I noticed…the mom’s face said it all, “We tried to find a bathroom, but no one would let us use it so here we are peeing in a gutter.” I’ve been there. I’ve been there with kids, kids who say they don’t need to pee and then two minutes later have to pee so bad that you believe they are going to explode. I’ve been there myself, looking for 20 minutes for a public restroom and then having to decide if a night in a Hungarian prison is worth peeing under an overpass.

I know there are lots of places with public restrooms, but almost all of them require some form of payment. Why? To pay the attendant? For cleaning? To pay for the water being used? Whatever, we have these same costs in the USA but we don’t charge to use the bathroom 95% of the time. If you guys in Europe don’t figure this out, I’m going to start selling disposable, biodegradable urine bladders to tourists so they can pee in a dark corner and then toss the waste in a garbage bin. #EuroPeeBag™

Line Cutting

Most people do not cut in line in the USA because we know our fellow Americans: We are violent, short tempered, and packing heat. Standing in line for an extra two minutes is okay if you know you might get shot, but in Europe where the risk of getting shot for slipping into a line is minimized by strict gun control (also known as rational thinking) people do cut in line. At one time, I thought the cutting was limited to Italians because they were the boldest line cutters but it isn’t just the Italians who seem to believe that anyone who starts standing in a line at the end of it is a sucker, most Europeans operate on the understanding that a line a type of suggestion, “You could stand here, or here, or up here. You decide.” (Germans do not cut in line. If there is one group who are stricter about lines than Americans it is the German people. You might not get shot, but getting yelled at by someone speaking German is almost as violent.)

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Airplane line cutters…

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The old slide into the bus line method.

I don’t know how to solve this problem but here’s a suggestion, how about putting the rules for lining up in more than one language. I realize that English is the universal language, the language of business, the only language I can speak and understand, but I started to get the feeling that most of the signs in Europe were there for Americans and Brits to follow. Why not explain how to line up in English and Italian? In museums, a few signs about flash photography in Japanese might help. If you don’t want kids jumping on your holocaust memorial put the signs in Swedish. Don’t want little packets of chewing tobacco littering the world; maybe some instructions about not sliding those into the airplane seat pouch in Norwegian would cut down on that kind of thing. Don’t want drunks sleeping in their own vomit in a gutter? Okay, that sign should be in English, but the British kind with words like centre and colour.

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Group of Brits getting ready for their 2 AM meeting with a Prague gutter.

Standardizing a few things doesn’t take away from the culture of the place, for example, if Sweden wanted to keep their toilets in those little unisex rooms that would be fine. I certainly don’t want to make more places like the USA we have enough influence on music, movies, and other forms of mindless entertainment, but it would be nice if we could agree on the basics. I don’t need biscuits and gravy in Prague (for the record, I don’t eat biscuits and gravy because it looks like somebody barfed on a plate) but I would like to see a sign by the central square that has an arrow pointing to a public restroom. If not for me, then how about for all the families with young kids who don’t need to be peeing into a gutter by the astrological clock.

10 Things I learned in Stockholm

The best King George slaying the dragon statue is in Stockholm.

Some flea market items aren’t worth asking about.

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I read about the great art in the Stockholm metro system…I must have been in the wrong metro stops.

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Watch out for arrows to the crotch, pole dancing might happen on this metro car, no smoking, dogs wear bonnets, Big Brother is Watching!

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(Grumpy old man observation.) If you are in a church and there are areas roped off, that means don’t go there. I don’t care if you have had piano lessons for ten years and really want to tickle the ivories…don’t do it. And if you are a parent of a kid playing a piano in a roped off area I hope you have fun explaining to the judge why your kid never learned to follow rules.

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This is a thing.

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Your metro pass can be used on the harbor ferry.

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Rats in Stockholm are well fed.IMG_4870

 

The changing of the guard in Stockholm is fun.Screen Shot 2016-08-05 at 7.34.27 AM

Stockholm’s weather can be confusing.IMG_4832

Sunny

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20 minutes later

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Monsoon

 

Stockholm: The End of the Road

 

We arrived in Stockholm knowing a few things about our visit, it would be our final stop on our month long ramble through Europe, and that we would be staying in a dungeon.

If you have taken a lengthy trip the end of the road is a mixture of relief and regret. Home suddenly becomes a reality and thoughts of sleeping in a bed that you know and showering in a place that isn’t a confusing combination of dials and plungers makes a traveler think about never leaving home again. But, I spend most of my time thinking about what I didn’t do…I didn’t get to the baths in Budapest, I only saw one outdoor opera in Vienna, I only had 2.5 days in Amsterdam, I missed a bunch of stuff in Copenhagen, I should have gone to that discounted classical music event in the palace in Prague, and I never found that hip area of Oslo where food isn’t expensive. (I don’t think this place exists. It must be a vast left wing conspiracy of mapmakers, travel guide writers, and the Internet.)

Missing stuff bothered me on my first couple trips because I assumed I would not be back, but I don’t think like that any longer. Travel is a priority and I will figure out a way to get back to the places I missed.

And so we arrived in Stockholm ready to bring our trip to an end. The hotel I selected met my requirements: Inexpensive (for Stockholm), near a metro stop or centrally located, good reviews on TripAdvisor, and a breakfast buffet included in the cost. The pictures of the hotel let me know we were in for something unique…all of the inexpensive rooms shared a shower and toilet, and looked like Poe visited them before writing Cask of Amontillado. (If you don’t remember this story from your 9th grade year in high school it’s the one where the guy traps Fortunato in a wine cellar.)

We passed through the passport check, caught the fancy fast train to the city center, got on the right metro train going the wrong direction, got off the right metro train and went the right direction, and found the hotel without making any mistakes (going the wrong way on an unfamiliar metro line doesn’t count as a mistake)…we were getting better at this. The hotel was small, the rooms were Hobbit like, and the bathroom was something else.

We unpacked a little and then went in search of something to eat. We ended up walking through the old town (Gamla Stan), getting a little lost (which is key when looking for a good restaurant in my opinion), and then eating at a traditional Swedish restaurant. After being in Munich, Bratislava, Budapest, and Prague for a couple weeks it was good to see that fresh vegetables were still being served in Europe.

IMG_4836During dinner, I laid out the plan for Stockholm, take one of those Hop-On Hop-Off double-decker bus tours that I make fun of, and then pick a couple things to do. In other words, take it easy and see a few things instead of trying to race through everything.

The next day I was on a red double-decker bus, earbuds in my head listening to the English version of Welcome To Stockholm. It was the least informative tour I have ever done in my life. Stockholm is an old city. The age of a place usually makes it more interesting because there are layers of history everywhere you go. Stockholm is either the most boring European capital in the world, or the Hop-on Hop-off Bus tour is letting Kansas’ State Board of Education write their history. (I realize I deserve to get ripped off by getting on one of these rolling tourist traps. Give me the route and in one day I’ll have put together a more interesting recording. I’ll even do it in Spanish…okay, that’s a stretch.) Here’s my favorite part, “Greta Garbo was born in this neighborhood. Her mother worked in a jam factory and her father sat in a corner and read the newspaper. Garbo hated the long winter nights in Stockholm. She couldn’t wait to leave…” Umm, okay…this sounds like somebody is reading her Wikipedia page https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greta_Garbo . (For the record, I wrote what I remembered before looking at the Wikipedia page.) I believe the people selling the tour of Stockholm outsourced the audio recording to somebody in Mumbai who read a script from the Stockholm Wikipedia page.

IMG_4741Just when I thought the tour couldn’t get worse, the Spanish lady sitting in front of us, on a very crowded bus, decided it was time to air out the old arm pits. It was sunny, it was a little warm, but it wasn’t the kind of hot where you expect people to smell like onion covered hot dogs. Sometimes I exaggerate in my blog…I’m not exaggerating here. It was like someone opened a bag of hot garbage from Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Stand in the seat in front of me and I was trapped and had to smell it like I was being olfactorily-punished Clockwork Orange style. I did a little mouth breathing and tried to escape but after three minutes I was hyperventilating and she was winning. I gave up. I sat there in misery listening to the recorded tour sprinkle educational gems every five minutes like, “This is the neighborhood where Per Gessle lives,” and “The Abba Museum opens at 10 am,” and “The Stockholm marathon is ranked the best in the world.” Eventually the fates intervened and killed our bus. We pulled over at one of the hop-on hop-off spots and stayed there, nothing was happening so I assumed the tour was progressing normally, but after five minutes some guy came upstairs and said the bus was broken and we would have to get on another bus. We got off, climbed onto the next bus as far from the Spanish woman as possible and traveled for about two more stops before we hopped off for good. I have never burned a $50 bill, but that tour was as close as I hope I ever come. I went on a hop-on hop-off tour of London about 15 years ago and it was 20,000 times better. There was a live tour guide and he had lots of things to tell us. It felt like a really complicated Jungle Boat Cruise but at least when it was over I felt like I knew more about London than when I first got on the bus. The Stockholm version sucked reindeer meatballs (which are very tasty when paired with Lingonberries and gravy) and I still don’t believe that Roxette had four number one singles in the US.

After the tour, my wife and I wandered around for a little bit and headed to the Vasa Museum. My wife wasn’t too thrilled about another Scandinavian boat museum, we had been to three of them in Oslo and those were okay but I wouldn’t go back to any of them again. The Vasa, on the other hand, is one of the best museums I have ever visited. The Vasa was a warship built around 1600. The king wanted two levels of cannons and lots of fancy carvings for his boat. In technical terms this made the boat “tippy.” The king wasn’t a master boat builder, or an engineer, or a naval architect, or anything else that makes one qualified to build a ship, but he was the king, and so his boat was built. The boat sailed for about one kilometer before a gust of wind blew it over and it sank in Stockholm’s harbor. 50 people died onboard. The king’s fancy boat couldn’t be recovered in 1600 because America hadn’t been invented yet and we couldn’t come to the rescue, and so, it sat on the bottom of the harbor until 1959 when some pipe smoking Swedish guy decided it was time to locate it and see if they could get it back above the water. It took about 30 years to get the whole thing done, but now the Vasa is sitting in a big, dark building all recovered and lovely. If the king’s boat had actually worked it certainly wouldn’t have survived 300 years like the Vasa did.

The great thing about the museum is the detail. They could have made a pretty boring museum by digging up the boat and saying, “Ta Da!” and people would still visit because it is an amazing structure, but I learned a ton about boats, boat building, stupid kings, rescuing boats, Swedish history (apparently they have done more than make gummy fish and release the plague known as ABBA on the world), what a diving bell is, how to fire a cannon, and how life in 1600 was not better than today. I also watched a movie on the rescue effort in Chinese (there were English subtitles) that was better than anything on the Hop-on Hop-off tour. (I was about to leave the Vasa museum but it was raining like mad outside, so I went back in and watched the Chinese movie.)

So, for those of you heading to Stockholm here’s a quick list:

  1. Don’t do the Hop-on Hop-off tour.
  2. Go to the Vasa Museum.
  3. Eat reindeer.
  4. Bring a rain jacket even if it looks sunny.
  5. Do some yoga before heading to the shared bathroom at the Rex Petit.

 

 

Explaining Trump to Europe

It happened; I knew it would. At some point during my trip I knew I would be asked, “Is Donald Trump going to be President?” I guess I didn’t think it would happen as often as it did.

The first time was after I had been in Europe for about 30 minutes. A young man in Schiphol Airport stopped me to ask if he could survey me and since I had a two-hour layover I needed something to do. He asked a few questions about whether I would use an automated system to get my boarding passes and then he asked, “What nation are you from?”

“I’m from the United States.” He looked at me like he wanted to ask something else and I could feel it. I waited, but he was polite and he probably wasn’t supposed to ask personal questions when he was on the clock so I filled in. “Yeah, I’m sorry.” (This might be the Obama apology tour I read about on Facebook, but since it was just me, and about 7 years later than the tour Obama took to say he was sorry for being an American and how he was going to take everyone’s guns and put freedom loving Americans in re-education camps so that he could destroy America and turn it over to ISIS, I could be mistaken.)

He smiled, “Do you think Trump will be President?”

“I don’t think so. I hope not, but…” I shrugged. “There are a lot of stupid Americans though.” (Yeah, I said it and I’m not sorry. Try me for treason, or whatever you think is appropriate, I have plenty of evidence to support my statement.)

“Well, good luck,” he said.

“We need it.”

 

On a boat tour in Amsterdam our guide eventually got around to asking. The rest of the people in the boat (two Brits, two South Africans) stopped their side conversations and leaned in to hear an explanation. There were four of us, Americans, who shook our heads and tried to explain how it couldn’t happen with the Electoral College and how Trump would implode, but who knows what will happen. I assumed the other couple in the boat were republicans: wealthy, older, retired; but they were as flummoxed as I was to explain our presidential election process and how Trump had survived. Our guide summarized his feelings, “Well, I hope he isn’t elected, that would be bad for everyone,” and he wasn’t talking about the United States, he was speaking for the world, which as captain of our little boat he was allowed to do.

 

In Munich, we were sitting in an Italian restaurant with Maike (an exchange student who lived with us in the US) and her university friend. The sun was going down, our pizza was still in the oven, and all of us were moving on to our second drink when it came up. Maike and her friend had both been exchange students so they understood Americans better than most Europeans and that is what worried them. They knew what makes America great and what makes it weak. The irony that we sat less than a kilometer from where the Beer Hall Putsch took place wasn’t lost on me as we discussed how someone like Trump could become the leader of the free world. (I’m not one of those liberals who believes everyone is Hitler, and I think that Hitler comparisons to politicians are offensive, but when the hairdo fits…–Yes, I know what I just did there, I said comparisons like that are offensive and then I made that very comparison. You got me. You win. Trump isn’t Hitler, he’s more like McCarthy, but McCarthy wasn’t a presidential candidate and eventually flamed out when everyone realized he was full of shit.)

Germans know the reality of how these things happen and they know the lasting scars left on a national identity. I remember Maike talking to me about how a few American students were teasing her about Hitler while she was a student in the US. “I don’t know what to say. We know he was a bad man and he did very bad things,” she said nearly in tears. I tried to explain that most high school kids in the US only knew Germany as the place where Hitler killed Jews. Most Americans would never travel to Germany to see how it is today. In many American minds Germany would be forever stuck in 1944, and yet, every year when we read Night students would ask, “How could this happen?”

 

I was asked about Trump in Vienna, Bratislava, Prague, and Stockholm, but it was Budapest where it was hardest to explain. We were on a bike tour with a couple from Texas, a couple from England, two young Danish university students, and our guide who was born as Hungary was escaping from the Soviet grip that had held it since World War II.

I think it started when I teased the British couple about the BrExit and how their country’s vote had crashed the Euro and saved us lots of money on our trip. “I’m glad it helped you. Our whole country is a mess and you saved some money…” his frustration bubbled out.

“Weren’t the polls saying it wasn’t going to pass going into the vote?” I asked.

“Yes, and now people who voted for it are saying, ‘I only voted for it because I didn’t think it would pass.’” He went on to say that he had seen numerous interviews with people regretting their votes, and then he turned to me and said, “The same thing could happen to you.”

We all knew what he meant, and he was right. It could happen. The Danish girls wanted to know if we thought it could happen. I started to explain the Electoral College, but everyone at the table already understood how it worked which should make every American understand how important our elections are to the rest of the world because they know how our presidents are elected and I doubt a majority of Americans could explain the process. “It will come down to the swing states: Ohio, Florida, Iowa… I live in a blue state so my vote will only count a little for the president.”

“We live in Texas, a red state, but no one we know is a Trump supporter,” the guy from Texas said. “It’s like they won’t say it out loud, but somebody is voting for him. People don’t trust Hilary,” he shook his head, “and I don’t like her, but I can’t vote for Trump.”

Then our tour guide asked the real question, “How could this happen?” This question came from the young lady who had just guided us around her city showing us monuments from 60 years of Soviet oppression and the scars of WW II. People in Hungary didn’t vote for these events. These events happened to people who had no say in the “elections” of strong men in other countries. What she was really asking was, “Have you all lost your minds? Why would you choose this?”

How could it happen? It isn’t supposed to happen, is it? (Please excuse me while I get a little patriotically sappy.) The rest of the world does look to the US as beacon of freedom. Our elections influence the world. Who we choose for the next four years will not just be a choice for us; it is a choice for the rest of the world. Is this who we have become? Frightened, xenophobic, misogynistic?

Six months ago, I laughed off the possibility that we would elect someone like Donald Trump. I’m not laughing any longer, and I can’t really explain it. It makes no sense to me.

 

 

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. http://www.vrtbovska.cz 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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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?” 

“No.”

“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. 

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