18th of August
I am once again relaxing on Alex’s couch, sharing the property with two cats and a tortoise. They’re good company, but they only speak German, so it’s hard to get a good conversation going. I have to take a moment to recognise how good my life is at the present moment. Each day I wake up, have a relaxing morning, before venturing out with Alex for my next Austrian adventure. If it wasn’t for the whole money thing, I could see myself being happily unemployed for years to come.
It’s been five days since I last wrote an entry, and this feels both too long and short a time. The days have whipped by, blurred memories and moments all traced with an edge of happiness. Yet when I think of all I’ve experienced in this time, five days doesn’t seem long enough to contain it all.
When I last wrote I was making wishes on suspicious shooting stars. Since then I’ve seen Klimt paintings, walked atop the bell tower at St Stephan’s Cathedral, relaxed at a bbq in Upper Austria, eaten at a wirtshaus with around twenty of Alex’s extended family, wandered the beautiful city of Vienna, celebrated Monika’s birthday with some of the best food I’ve ever tasted, chopped wood, drunk schnapps, and just generally eaten my way through most of Austria’s traditional menu. And loved doing it. And I know I’ve done even more, but my memory’s failing me right now.
It’s hard to pick highlights from this array of bright moments, but getting to relax at a bbq with Alex’s mates in Upper Austria would have to be one. Alex organised the event both as an opportunity to gather, eat and drink in the beautiful Austrian summer, as well as to give her friends a chance to meet the weird Australian boy she invited over. In both aspects, it was a success.
As with everyone Alex has introduced me to, her circle of friends were open and welcoming — I’m beginning to suspect the Viennese stereotype of being stubborn and impatient as being false.
Another highlight was being invited to lunch with Alex’s family for her grandmother’s birthday where I ate venison and soaked in the company of her family. I couldn’t understand the dialogue but could appreciate the rhythms of conversation and the shared laughter that are so common at my own family gatherings. If travel reinforces anything, it’s that we’re not as different as we think.
Today I was sitting around the corner from Alex’s office building, resting on a small square of wood, stones and greenery amongst the industrial grey of the area. A balding man with stained yellow teeth smoking a cigarette approached me and attempted conversation. I knew his sort — the lost and addled, deprived of interaction and having forgotten the social norms of a community from being too long outside of it. He spoke German and I spoke English, but that wasn’t a great deterrent. I have dealt with people like him for years as a nurse, and know that a calm face, a smile, and a patient tone is all they’re after. I gave him these and he grinned with saliva-flecked lips and bid me “Tschüss,” which means goodbye. I bid him the same.
It is strange being outside a language. I never realised how much of myself I projected until the option was taken away from me. When I’m surrounded by those speaking German, I internalize everything. It’s not the most comfortable feeling. I have things I want to express out into the world but have no way of doing so. So I remain quiet, and outwardly thoughtful, bottled inside my own head. I imagine it’s years spent like this that drives someone like my balding, nicotine-stained new friend to approach a stranger, even if it is just for a minute of conversation.
It’s okay, though. It’s a new experience, and I like new experiences. It makes me think of the immigrants who travelled to Australia, knowing no one and having no word of English, and somehow managing to build a new life. I can’t imagine the isolation they must have felt, how much they internalized to begin with, until some patient person helped them with the language. Alex is my patient person, but sometimes things simply cannot be translated. Conversation goes by too fast, or the context is too foreign. I understand, and instead just try to enjoy the atmosphere and the mood of those around me. I do take great pride when I pick out one word from amongst a hundred. It makes me all the more determined to master German. At the moment I have the reading level of a three-year old — although having read some of Alex’s niece’s books, I feel even this is being generous.
And on books, today I went into the National Library of Vienna. The irony of the place was that it was too beautiful for reality, and looked like it belonged in a book. The smell of the books, the texture of the wood, the bright and intricate murals decorating the ceiling could have been spun out of fantasy. It was certainly this geeky book-lover’s fantasy. Vienna continues to astound. Every time I think I’ve see it’s most beautiful side, it turns and reveals a new facet that stops me in my tracks.
Tomorrow I visit one of Vienna’s royal castles, the Schoenbrunn Castle, and I’m sure it will cause me to falter in my steps like all the rest.
Early after arriving, Alex and I were sitting in her backyard at night when we heard a noise in the bushes. Alex casually remarked that it was probably a hedgehog. I casually lost my shit. I was very excited by the idea of seeing a hedgehog. After a confused expression and something like, “Really? It’s just a hedgehog,” Alex attempted to find the creature but with no luck.
Today, I got to hold a hedgehog.
Alex’s Dad, Rupert, was in the garden and managed to find the most adorable baby hedgehog, which he then handed to me. I think you can see in the picture how happy I am about this series of events. It may have been the most exciting thing I’ve seen in my travels so far.
Vienna, you did it again.
20th of August
I am sitting on my bed in my adopted room in Vienna, with a belly full of wiener schnitzel. It’s a good way to be. Today is Alex’s first official day off from work, so I’m giving her the day off from her second job as my travel guide. I can be a generous employer. Suitably, we’re having as lazy a day as possible. It’s strange not to be going and seeing another of Vienna’s ridiculous wonders, but good as it gives me time to digest and assimilate all that I have seen. Overtime I think Alex has played her best card, laid the crowning jewel of Vienna out to wow me, I’m proven wrong. After the library I was convinced nothing could top this surreal experience. I was wrong.
Yesterday we trained it to the summer palace of the Austria Empire, the Schönbrunn Palace. Austria is now a republic, but historically it was an empire that used to stretch into parts of Italy, Hungry, Poland, and the Cheque Republic. As you would expect from such a vast empire, the living quarters of its royal family were suitably impressive. Actually, suitably impressive is a gross understatement. What I meant to say was mindbogglingly incredible, lavish and opulent in ways I couldn’t fathom. Yeah, that’s what I meant to say.
We started by walking around the mammoth stretch of building that was the main estate that used to house over one thousand staff — all to care for a family of five. The five I’m referring to is the very famous couple of Franz and Elizabeth, a.k.a Sisi, and their three children. There’s a chance they had more kids and they were simply lost in the labyrinth of the palace. There’s really no way of knowing.
After circling the building we walked through the central gardens which were all perfectly maintained, towards one o the most impressive fountains I’ve ever seen. To be honest, it was more of a man-made waterfall bedecked with beautiful statues.
We wound our way up an incline towards the Gloriette, which we theorised was used as a sitting room. If so, it is the mother of all sitting rooms. It was ordered to be constructed by Maria Theresa, a previous empress of Austria who ruled and instigated many positive changes, all while giving birth to fourteen children. I guess the mother of all sitting rooms is appropriate for this mother of Austria.
Given we had already climbed so far, we lashed out and paid the €3.50 to climb to the top of the Gloriette and look back down at the palace. I’m going to try to describe it, but please bear in mind that my words are insufficient. Much like a photo only captures a static image, my description will undoubtably be missing the bombardment of details taken in by the human eye that elevates it from something simply nice into something indescribable. For the full effect, I recommend seeing it yourself.
Looking down, the palace was reduced to a doll house, one of perfect and exquisite realism, with the stretch of symmetrical gardens laid out like a royal carpet leading to its door. To either side, the dark green of the wider gardens unrolled, a maze of beauty and shadows. I say gardens, but a manicured forest is a more accurate description.
Behind this picturesque setting that more rightly belongs in the pages of a book than my mundane reality, Vienna, the city, rose and fell, a mosaic of ancient buildings and modern skyscrapers, cathedral spires and aqua-rusted domes, far off golden statues catching the few rays of light leaking through the clouds.
In case my description failed to impart the sentiment: It was nice.
So you can see why today, a day of rest, of assimilation and digestion, is necessary. I need this time to convince myself it was real, that this boy from Australia wandered the palace of Austrian emperors, took in art commissioned hundred of years ago and featuring people long dead, but whose actions and decisions helped sculpt the world we have today. It’s a lot to take in.
Tomorrow, a border crossing into Slovakia.
23rd of August
I am sitting in my bed at the beginning of what will be my last full day in Austria. For the time being, at any rate. Vienna in the summer is unquestionably beautiful, but Alex has detailed all its winter attributes, and has made the idea of returning very appealing. She’s offered to let me stay with her again when I return, and it would be rude not to accept this gracious offer. Really, my hands are tied.
I know I’m really going to miss Vienna. I have only been here two weeks, but every thing from the kindness of Alex and her family, the open and impressive expanse of the city itself, the food and the history, and every person I’ve met, have made this a place that feels like home. A friend told me yesterday that Vienna was voted one of the most livable cities in the world — I can believe it.
My last entry finished by mentioning our planned journey into another country. We did it. And we did it by train. In fact, the trip only took about forty minutes. I’m pretty sure I’ve waited on a train platform in Melbourne for longer than that.
I was very excited to be plunging from one country to another, to see the change that would occur. Living on the world’s biggest island means a border crossing isn’t possible without the use of a boat or a place — that we were doing it via train seemed very novel.
Much to my surprise, there was no fanfare when we passed the border, no fireworks or welcoming wreaths, no security guards or cavity searches, the train just continued chugging down the tracks, and from one breath to the next, we were in Slovakia. The passport I’d brought stayed tucked in my pocket, unstamped.
Despite the lack of carnival welcoming my arrival into another country, there was no doubt it was in fact another country. The German words I’ve come to expect on signs and advertisements were gone, replaced a foreign collections of letters. The shape and style of the buildings looked different, and the language floating around me in conversation shifted. That short train ride and we were in a new culture, the old borders allowing it to grow beside the culture of Austria, untouched and unmixed.
Bratislava is a small city, by which I mean Alex and I walked in and around it twice in the few hours we were there, but it has a certain charm because of this. The age of the place is apparent in its narrow cobbled streets, and its charm is intensified by the ease with which food and drink can be bought. It’s a place made to appeal to tourists with a restaurant on almost every corner. Like every meal I’ve had since landing, lunch was delicious — for those still playing at hoe, I had the beef goulash.
And, really, that was Bratislava.
Yesterday, after an incredibly delicious morning of doing nothing, Alex and I headed to a fair. The fair is a three-day celebration of eating and drinking. What it is celebration of, I hear you ask? Why, eating and drinking, of course. The most noble cause for celebrating.
I was feeling very underdressed as Alex stepped out wearing a traditional dirndl — think shouldered white shirt, patterned dress and apron. The garb is reserved for special occasions, and the effect is stunning. And made more so once we arrived at the fair to see crowds of people in the traditional outfit — you could almost taste the culture. Which I soon did, by eating a baumkucken, which was kind of like a log length of cinnamon donut. It was good.
The men didn’t miss out, strutting around in below-knee leather lederhosen and checked shirt. Alex told me of the sophisticated system used by the ladies when tying their aprons: A knot on the left means the wearer is single, and open to a polite advance. A knot on the right means the wearer is in a committed relationship and all interested parties would be better trying their luck elsewhere. A knot centred in the back indicates the wearer is a widow, and a knot front-and-centre means the wearer is a virgin. Although, why this information needs to by public knowledge is beyond me. But I think this system is genius, and if adopted into Australia could save for a lot of failed attempts at picking up. For a very old tradition, it’s really quite ahead of its time.
Tonight we plan to farewell Vienna by heading to the top of the DC tower for a cocktail — a most appropriate was to say goodbye as the city will be laid out around us. As I said, I’m sad to be leaving, and have loved every second of my time here.
I can’t really complain, though. Tomorrow, we head to the Greek Islands.