Tuesday, 28 December 2010

III. The Hills are Alive with the Sound of Beer, Pretzels, Mozart, Opera, Spanish Horses, Ruined Pubs, and Hot Baths

I'm on a train from Prague to Berlin, listening to Pachelbel's Canon and lost in the beautiful snowscape outside my window. It is more than postcard-perfect: small colourful houses scattered against a backdrop of mountains and forefronted by a river that's still flowing. Everything is magical, white, and serene. I have no idea where we are (we could still be in the Czech Republic or already in Germany) and it doesn't matter.

It's been another two weeks since my last post, and our pace has indeed slowed down, as we had anticipated. Ever since Vienna, we've been staying at hostels for at least three nights, and the extra day or two makes a huge difference. It's not that we're seeing any more of the cities (we're still doing everything we want to, with down time to spare), but rather that we're spacing it out so that we aren't killing ourselves trying to milk every day for what it's worth, as we did in Italy. Moreover, the weather is significantly colder, which really inhibits our desire to walk around—we're not tired so much as numbed to the point of losing complete feeling in our extremities after just a few minutes outside. We're also waking up significantly later now (on one of our days in Budapest we got out of bed at 11, a record!).

So our rhythm has changed, but the novelty hasn't worn off. Apart from my current window view, everything is still stimulating, still beautiful—perhaps even more so. Budapest and Prague especially: every building in both of those cities is an architectural marvel (or just really damn old, which is something in itself). Vienna, of course, was very pretty, but in an elegant, sophisticated, less colourful, yet slightly overstated way (although not in places far from the center of town; some of the neighborhoods were quite disappointing). Salzburg was a delightful surprise; it was the definition of quaint with an old-town feel, just like a medieval village. Generally speaking, though, everything has definitely been a lot less eye-assaulting when compared with Rome.

And I've come to realize what I've known all along: that New York isn't my city. Midtown West aside, it's undeniably beautiful and exciting, but not in the same way. It has history, but not enough. It's not steeped in centuries of old age, and that makes a huge difference (at least to me). I've always thought that I was born in the wrong century. Perhaps I was, perhaps I wasn't, but that doesn't matter. All I know is that I feel more of an affinity with old things, with old places. Perhaps the problem is that I've been living in the wrong cities.

My favourite from this trip by far was Budapest (and I'm sure Anna and Andy would wholeheartedly concur). So I'll start with that. I might even go so far as to say that it was the most beautiful city—as I noted above, every single building was eye candy to some degree, and not ostentatiously so. There were many rich, vibrant hues, especially in contrast to Vienna, which had a rather washed out palette (mostly whites and creams). Not only was it beautiful, it was also cheap: one American dollar is equivalent to roughly 200 Hungarian forints. I felt rich after making my first transaction—I was going to do it at the currency exchange in the train station, but a random guy stopped me outside the booth and told me that he would give me a much better deal. I was, of course, skeptical at first (having stupidly forgotten to look up the rate beforehand), but we were pressed for time and I really needed the money, so after a bit of talking I gave him $70 and was awarded with a whopping 14,000 forints. The guy probably worked for some illicit organization (euphemistically speaking), but it was a win-win situation between the two of us, so I won't complain... especially not after getting ripped off at a currency exchange in Florence, which had a hidden 19% commission rate (I gave the lady $200 and was given 106 euros in return—there is definitely something outrageously wrong with that!).

It was beautiful, it was cheap, and to incandescently complete the trifecta, it was chill. The people were incredibly nice (we didn't have to even ask for help when we were trying to find the hostel, as a random guy just came up to us when he saw that we looked confused). And it was busy, it was alive: especially in juxtaposition to Vienna, which I had thought was strangely quiet the night we arrived (yes, there had been a mini blizzard of sorts, but still... the atmosphere, the mood, the feeling, was different). In Budapest, our ears were greeted with vivacious folk music as we emerged from the train station; I think the group had been clad in Native American garb? [Believe it or not, that's actually been a recurring sight on our trip.]

It was especially alive after the sun went down. We went out the first two nights, to various bars and pubs. Budapest is renowned for its ruined pubs, which look as if they haven't been changed for 500 years. Each has a distinct personality of its own, and all are decorated with the most idiosyncratic furnishings (e.g., a huge wooden owl-woman, clementine tree lights). The history was literally breathing out of the walls. Definitely my kind of place.

The hostel we stayed at was also lovely. The facilities were sufficient (although I had issues with the shower), but more importantly, it had such a cozy, homey atmosphere and very friendly staff. We were in a six-bed dorm (which didn't feel at all like a dorm, as it was a really big room with high ceilings; I now understand why the hostel is called "Guest House and Apartments"), but the other three beds weren't occupied by anyone else so we had the entire space to ourselves. One of the staff, a chap from London, took us out on the second night, and we've gotten to know him pretty well.

Within half an hour of knowing me, in fact, he made some rather bold pronouncements about me that coincide with what other people have been telling me all my life. Things that I've been well aware of and have grown even more conscious of, if that's even possible. At our first bar, he told me that I was career-driven and overly organized, and loved control too much. That I needed to calm down and let loose. Which is true—but only to a certain extent. I know I can be incredibly uptight sometimes, and that I need to learn how to relax. To take it easy, at least once in awhile.

The thing is, I try, I do try, to take it easy. I've been more carefree than usual this entire trip, as I noted in my previous post. I'm happy, really and truly happy, despite the insufferable cold and the occasional ridiculous mishap. But I cannot completely give in and let everything go (unless under the influence of an inordinate amount of alcohol, in which case my inner five-year-old tends to come out). It's always a balance, and you're always tipping more to one side of it. Having control, letting go. Letting go, having control. To be human, you cannot be completely on one side or the other. I happen to tip more often to the control side because I am, admittedly and fundamentally, a control freak afflicted with more than the typical dosage of OCD, and I cannot help it. Having control makes me happy. I need to have a schedule, to know exactly what I'm going to do next, in order to wake up in the morning, to get going. I need a purpose. Of course I know things will never turn out exactly the way I expect them to. And that's okay—that, I've learned, is part of the fun, part of the thrill. But I still need the hypothetical plan, the ought. That is what gets me going. There has to be a constant goal to be reached, a steady line of progress toward something, no matter how inconsequential. Right now I'm on vacation so yes, I can do whatever I want, but I know that it's only temporary. Especially in the context of an entire year away from home, it's more surreal than ever. I feel as if I've either lost or discovered myself. Perhaps both, perhaps neither. Regardless, the possibilities have expanded considerably; I no longer feel stuck in an unfathomable rut. I no longer feel lost and helpless, confused about what I want, so terribly scared that perhaps my deepest convictions of who I am don't actually match who I really am (whatever that means).

Perhaps I can change, and perhaps I will change, but why should I force anything when—for one of the only times in my life—I'm completely satisfied with the way I currently am? I'm not fundamentally worried about anything; I'm not even worried that this will end and that I will be worried in the future. I have come to realise, however, that while we tend to define ourselves by our convictions, we are all inevitably prone to change. We can only predict, we can only define so much. We are all fickle. And the scariest thing of all is when you realise that you aren't who you thought you were. When your deepest convictions get overturned and you are forced to reevaluate. Then your whole world literally does come crashing down and you wonder what the bloody hell you're doing.

I want to be perfect. But I also don't want to be. Life is about trying to be perfect, not being perfect. That would ruin all the fun.

Oh, and one last thing. I am not career-driven, just ambitious. There is a marked difference. If I were the former, I wouldn't be getting my degree in English and Linguistics. So there.

Anyhow, I'm thinking too much again. I have such a terrible tendency to do this. So I'll stop this "train" before it gets too far (please pardon the pun, as I am technically sitting on one at this moment...).

I shall now rewind to Munich, where we went after Zurich. Basically, it was cold. Really, really, really cold (perhaps the coldest point of our trip). It snowed the entire time we were there, but thankfully it never quite reached blizzard status, or even came close. On our first night, we ate dinner at a traditional pub and wandered around the magnificent Christmas market, then went to Hofbräuhaus, which is by far the largest beer hall I've been to. The fare was also, to put it bluntly, enormous. Andy and Anna both ordered a litre of beer, but since I absolutely cannot stomach beer of any kind—it took me six solid hours to finish a half litre bottle of grapefruit-flavoured Radler—I ordered a rum tea. The rum came in an adorable little bottle that looked even more grossly disproportionate when placed next to the beer mug, as evidenced by the picture below.

Rum vs. Litre of Hofbräu Original

We also played 20 or so rounds of President (or Asshole, depending on perspective), of which Anna won every one but the last. I kept being dealt an abysmal hand and became incredibly frustrated, and the rum tea wasn't exactly helping. It was hilariously fun, though, and we also met some rowdy Australian guys, which wasn't surprising in the least as we've seen an inordinate number of Australians so far; it's very easy for them to leave the Land Down Under.

On our second (and final) day in Munich, we went on a walking tour in the morning, which would have been wonderfully enlightening had it not been for the fact that I was concentrating more on getting the slightest scintilla of feeling back into my toes and fingers than on what our tour guide was saying. After lunching on the second floor of Hofbräuhaus (which is graced with an enormous stage on one end), we hopped on a bus to Dachau, the first Nazi concentration camp in Germany and the model for subsequent sites. It was, needless to say, one of the most serious moments of our trip. By the time we arrived, it was already getting dark, there weren't too many people around, and the snow made it seem even more desolate. As I walked around the displays in one of the buildings, examining every word and image, I was half in a state of denial. Of course I knew that it had happened—what shocked me was the fact that such a thing could have happened. That human beings were capable of such... such inhumanity. Such devastation. It also made me appreciate everything I had so much more, made me even more aware of just how privileged I am. I didn't complain of the cold for quite awhile afterward.

We headed to Salzburg that evening, the home of Mozart and The Sound of Music (which I had watched for the first time on the train ride from Zurich to Munich). On our first day we walked around the city, venturing into its Christmas markets and its very own Old Town, and explored the glorious Hohensalzburg Fortress on top of the hill. The views were incredible, and the fairytale atmosphere was only enhanced by the snow.

View from Atop Hohensalzburg Fortress

The next day we had been planning on visiting a nearby lake and the surrounding markets (essentially pulling a Montreux), but our plans didn't quite work out because we didn't have enough time if we wanted to catch the train to Vienna we had been planning on catching, so we just ended up wandering around a bit more—all in all it was a pretty low-key stay.

Vienna was, surprisingly, also fairly low-key. To be honest, it didn't quite meet my exalted expectations at first, but then it did meet (and in some ways surpassed) them. Our hostel wasn't exactly in the prettiest of areas, as it wasn't too close to the city center, but once we reached the center on our first full day I was very pleasantly surprised. Everything was so majestic, so classy; there were palaces (and palace-like buildings) galore—even the major library resembled a royal household. We moseyed around the Hapsburg area, went to St. Stephen's Cathedral, walked over to the Danube, and ended our evening at the State Opera House (we purchased standing room tickets for only four euros, and the view wasn't terrible at all, as we were on the parterre section, behind the orchestra seats). The opera (Verdi's Un Ballo in Maschera) was magnificent, utterly magnificent, although I must admit that it did pale a little in comparison to the first opera I had seen, Verdi's La Traviata, at the Met in NYC this spring. The stage wasn't as grand, nor were the props—but the performance itself was spectacular.

At the Opera

The next morning, we woke up relatively early to see a performance at the Spanish Riding School, for which we had also bought standing room tickets (normal tickets are apparently reserved months in advance). It's another Vienna must, and although it wasn't quite what I had expected—the horses and their riders were very dignified and mostly trotted around, with the occasional rear into the air—I did enjoy it. The hall in which it was shown was itself dazzling; there were three enormous chandeliers dangling from the ceiling.

Then, for the first time on our trip, we took both the afternoon and evening off to do laundry and cook dinner. Yes, our Vienna laundry plans did indeed work out, and this just goes to show that planning ahead does have its benefits! [And thank goodness it did, or else we very well might have suffocated to death from the noisome odor emanating from our suitcases.] Cooking again was also lovely; the kitchen was very well-stocked, and I went out on a limb and made the most impromptu pasta dish ever, using no soy sauce or vegetables as usual but rather rosemary, oregano, oil, vinegar, and some ginger sauce I'd never encountered before. The effect was quite interesting; it was sweet and sour but not too much of either—all in all a success that's motivated me to try crazy new ways of frying pasta. Perhaps someday I'll put together a cookbook. The possibilities truly are limitless.

On our last day in Vienna, we visited Schönbrunn Palace in the late morning before leaving for Budapest. It is a masterpiece of Rococo architecture, Maria Theresa's imprint, and I loved every square inch. We went on a self-guided audio tour, and learned quite a lot about Maria and Franz Joseph I. The archduchess was utterly insane—she had 16 daughters and gave all of them away for marriage for political reasons except one, her favourite, whom she let marry out of love. Talk about career-driven.

I'm going to save Prague for the next post, but before I end here I absolutely must describe our last day in Budapest. We went to the Szechenyi Bath and Spa (hot baths, imported by the Turks along with paprika, is another Budapest must) for the late morning and afternoon. It's the biggest bath complex in the city, equipped with 15 pools (three of which are outdoors), saunas, gymnastics, massage treatments, et al. I've always been convinced that there is something to be said for hot water, whether you're drinking it or soaking in it, and this has confirmed my thoughts beyond belief. I felt like I was in a vacuum. It was timeless and placeless because of the fog, emanating from both the outside and the inside (caused by the steam); in some areas you literally couldn't see more than two feet in front of you. Definitely the most transcendentally relaxing day of the trip by far, and one of the most relaxing days of my life. I wanted to stay there forever.

On that note, I shall finally end this entry. But not before mentioning the lángos (Hungarian deep-fried bread soaked in garlic), which transcends the meaning of fast food. Dripping with oil and grease, it's necessarily high in everything that will render you vulnerable to a heart attack, but it's completely worth it; like the hot baths, it's an experience in itself. What happens in Budapest stays in Budapest, but what's eaten in Budapest also stays in Budapest, as you can't get anything like it anywhere else. Don't even try—it's not worth the effort.

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