Saturday, June 30, 2007

AT - Vienna

On Saturday I did the high-speed tour of Wien, successfully going to and touring pretty much every tourist site, and in the process thereof working up some mega.-blisters on my feet. Given that I was walking at my brisk pace of about 4.5 mph for about 13 hours, considering breaks I'd say I racked up about 60 miles on my new hiking boots (which were very comfy for the first 10 hrs or so, and excruciating once the blisters built up). This was the first time, however, where I will actually concede that I should have worn-in my boots first and built up the necessary calluses in advance. It is a large city: I had originally started by walking the whole thing, but at the end of the day I opted for transit back to my hostel.

I feasted on wurst (which is both huge, amazing, and dirt-cheap in Wien) and came to the realisation that wieners are named in the same theme as hamburgers and frankfurters. At first I kept snickering at how every sign -- about food or not -- had, in big letters, "WIENER" on it. Then I recalled that the city is indeed called Wien. What an epiphoney! I can’t believe I only figured that out now... I still let out a sophomoric chuckle every time I see a sign with "wiener" on it, though.

All in all, I didn’t really care for Wien. I wish I could have caught an opera or concert, but alas time and dress code did not permit. Apart from missing those cultural events, I actually felt like I visited most of the important sites in only a day – including spending time in the art museum. The gardens were a huge letdown: all greenery and no flowers. The other sites left about the same impression. I think the reason is because prior to my arrival in the city, I had built up this vision in my head of what Wien would look like. I saw it as the seat of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the power of the Habsburgs – originators of quite nearly every royal family throughout the continent. Surely such a city would have the best of everything. Alas, when I found the art museums to pale in comparison to Italy and the former royal palace with a parking lot upon the main courtyard, my vision quickly disappeared. I almost felt like the city betrayed what its heritage had built up in my mind.

The people were rather typical of most cities: not particularly sociable, though I am amazed at how about 99% of the population speaks perfect English. I was amazed by the facial structure of the Viennese... sort of like how in England, it seemed that all the men shared one of three different facial structures, Wien was interesting in that both men and women seemed to generally share the same single facial structure – best related to the really tall guy from the movie Big Fish. The rest of Austria seems pretty normal and diverse as far as facial structures go and my aerial tour of Germany convinced me that the entire country is full of supermodels... I just cannot quite explain the difference seeing as the borders and culture are so close. Perhaps it is just some enigma of European urban culture in such mega-cities as London and Wien.

Two events stood out, however. One was when I happened upon a pro-anarchy demonstration. It was all well and good at first, until someone opted to let off an audio cannon to send the birds flying everywhere. Wooooo that one got the police riled up fast. Things very nearly turned into a riot, except the anarchists clearly weren’t there to fight and the demonstration settled veers quickly back into its loudspeaker chants. The audio cannons continued, but at least now the police weren’t unprepared for the sudden sounds of explosions. A couple hours later was a massive gay pride parade, which was... amusing, to say the least. Things are far more liberal in Europe. I have plenty of photos, though I am not entirely sure how many will be fit for sharing at work or even amongst some members of my family. That night was uneventful: my new roommates were all sound asleep at about 2000.

Friday, June 29, 2007

AT - Arriving in Vienna

Hostel Ruthensteiner

It was very easy getting from the airport to the city, taking the tram to the west rail station, and then finding my hostel: the Hostel Ruthensteiner.  Sounds complicated, yes, but compared to my luck in some other destinations, this ended up being one of the easier lodgings to find.  Next up: I need 10 Euro for my key deposit.  OK so I forgot all my Euro back in the USA... but fortunately I accidentally bought the discount ticket for the Airport-City rail line and had to pay the difference to the full fare.  The conductor lad accepted my backup cash of Dollars, converted at market rate, and gave me the change in Euro.  Sweet deal: no conversion commission!  Problem was, after counting it up, I was at € 9.50 ... so I needed 50 more cents for my key deposit.

Generally hostels are willing to work with you and would be fine with letting the extra 0.50 Euro slide, or at least they’d accept Dollars.  But noooo the service at the front desk was not budging.  I go to the ATM, put in my card, and enter in my PIN.  ...Incorrect PIN.  OK maybe I had 2 numbers switched.  ...Incorrect PIN.

Now I have a predicament... I have 2 more 4-digit numbers in my head, of which I’m sure one of them is the right one, but will the machine eat my card if I get the third try wrong?  Then I’m left with $40 and € 9.50 in my wallet to last me a month in notoriously expensive central Europe.

The front desk staff fails again to help me out.  To their credit, they offer to accept my passport as my key deposit, except that would have only fixed my problem in Vienna and done nothing for my destinations in the nether-regions of the Alps, where credit card acceptance is reportedly nonexistent.  ...So I still had a pretty major problem here.

The desk staff do at least let me exchange all my paper Euros into coin and go to the hostel phone to try calling the phone number on the back of my credit card, which connects me with the Navy Federal Credit Union (NFCU).

No toll-free calls.  I try the collect number... none of that, either.  I try mashing the keypad... SUCCESS!!!  I get an automated message in German and then a disconnected tone.  OK that didn’t work.  Stress level is rising... I count to 10... doesn’t work, I'm still perturbed.  Front desk staff then informs me that fancy calls like toll-free, collect, or anything outside of Europe don’t work there and I should use the phone booths outside.

I head to a public phone and repeat, except at least this time I discover that I can use my credit card instead of precious coinage.  Right now, hard coin is more vital to me than diamond.  So lets try the process again: toll-free... nope.  Collect... nope.  I mash the keypad again... it rings... I get the international operator.  I explain my situation and ask to be connected with any of the 5 NFCU phone numbers I am carrying.  He can’t do that because he works on the same inconvenient system as the phones themselves, but says the domestic US operator can assist and so he sends me there (it’s just the 411 service).  She could help, but it would cost a dollar.  Fine, that buck is fine by me.  But wait... I'm calling from an international public phone and she refuses to accept a credit card.  I count to 10... doesn’t work.

I return to the hostel and spend 2 Euro for internet.  I get 30 minutes but I only use 2, which were spent checking the NFCU website for other phone numbers.  I get 2 for use in Europe, write them down, and trounce off back to the phone booth.  First one... nope.  Second one... nope.  Count to 10.  Doesn’t work.  Count to 10 in German... hey that kind of works.  German is a lovely language for releasing stress, which may explain the course of the past 100 years.  Rammstein songs start floating through my head and I find myself singing along out loud, but by now it is about 2300 local time and I blend right in with the other persona of the street.  I've a thickening travel beard, wrinkled and dirty clothes, a stench that you would not believe, and so I am just the standard fare of the city's night crawlers and late-arrival travelers.

Now a quick note on my stench: sure, everyone smells bad after spending many hours in a little tube.  However, in one of my first moments of genius of the trip: I grabbed what appeared to be a brand new stick of deodorant before I left only to later realise I grabbed the broken stick which I had been meaning to return to the store.

Back to my current predicament, standing along a small street in Vienna.  So public phones have failed me with trying to reach NFCU.  Now it’s time to change my plan and try begging for cash and/or advice from the parents.  I pull out my mobile to grab numbers, since I know even though my phone won’t work in Europe, I can at least access the phone numbers.  That’s actually one of the reasons I brought it along.

First up is "D" for "Dad"... I enter the phone number into the payphone, hit clear on my mobile, listen as the dial tone kicks in, and then realise... hey... why does my mobile show "A1" in the provider slot and indicate that I have full service?  ...Hang up the payphone, call NFCU on my mobile, talk to the operator, reset my PIN, and hang-up 2 minutes later.  Go to the ATM, withdraw Euros, and I'm on my merry way.  I'll worry about the phone bill in August.

Fortunately, I was actually staying in a second building for the hostel, where the staff was MUCH nicer and actually quite fun to talk to (though perhaps I am biased, as that particular person just happened to hail from beloved Italia). The hostel was a blast: my roommates were 2 girls from Manchester, England; 2 girls from Sweden; 1 quiet girl from who-knows-where (she walked in and just passed right out, to be gone by the time I woke up); 1 empty bed above me (I hate sharing a bunk bed); and to spoil an otherwise perfect room: 1 guy from Wisconsin (who actually ended up being pretty cool to have as a roommate).

The two girls from Manchester were definite partiers.  Well, at least the one was.  The other had some aura of innocence, but regardless they both came back wasted later in the night.  The two Swedish girls were quiet: I don’t think the one spoke English and the other one seemed very shy but could hold a conversation.  The guy from Wisconsin was also pretty quiet: an artsy-musical sort of kid who kind of reminded me of Mike Shinoda from Linkin Park, sans the Japanese.

It was an educational, interesting, dramatic, and fun Friday.  It encompasses all the things I love best about traveling: thinking fast and simply making decisions, even if they're not necessarily right.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

USA-DE-AT - Dulles --> Munich --> Vienna

So on June 28 I departed from Dulles Intl Airport.  There’s not much story to it other than expressing my thanks to my roommate, Steve, for driving me there during the infamous DC evening rush hour(s).  I basically walked right in and up to the counter, checked my backpack, made my way through security within minutes, and was sitting at my terminal gate within perhaps 30 minutes.  The Potbelly Deli was located right across from my gate and sold some tasty sandwiches for about the normal Potbelly price, which is dirt cheap as far as airports go.

Now to jump ahead a bit, a story from mid-flight:

En route, a young girl in the row in front of me did not take too well to the meal and... eh... lets just say that I was not quick enough at getting my seat's baggie to the poor mother whom took the brunt of it.  Fortunately, I was sheltered from the stream and had plenty of gum to jam up my nose so I didn’t follow suit due to the resulting smell.  After about 30 min, the crew had everything clean and smelling spiffy again, but the knowledge was always there of the next row's stigma.  I can't believe that mother and daughter went back and sat there... eww.  Granted, with a full flight and several hours remaining in the voyage, I suppose they didn’t have much other choice.  The rest of the trip was uneventful and I had a nice chat with the aged Berlin man beside me, whom helped me practice my non-existent German skills.

Now going back to the start of the flight, our flight was delayed more than an hour due to storms over New York City, though our German-speaking Motocross aficionado of a pilot managed to get us into München only half an hour late.  Now assuming we were to make it on time, I would have had about a 40 minute layover, if I recall.  So do the math and you find that I now had a 10 minute layover.  In airport-speak, that is not very much time.

...It's even less time if you do something stupid.  Now when one thinks of how many times I have flown in my life, both domestic and internationally, this is really really embarrassing.  The gate I wanted to go to was the gate directly adjacent to where I arrived.  Seriously, it was next door.  I could have walked there in about 30 seconds. Now how often does that happen, where the gate you want is right there where you are?  I naturally figured it would be on the other side of the airport, and lo and behold that's where I went.  Why?  Because I was following my seat number (seat F) instead of my gate number (gate G).  Oops.  Yeah so I missed my plane to Vienna.

So at this point it is about lunchtime on June 29 and I am oblivious to the goings on in Britain (actually I didn’t even hear about the attempted car bombings until about a week later).  I get myself booked on the next flight to Vienna and find that I have 3 hrs to burn, so I get my comp'ed lunch and take a nap in the unbelievably comfy café furniture within the terminal.  Seriously, I am not being sarcastic -- it was indeed comfortable.  That means I now have a comfy hideout in two of the three major trans-Atlantic hubs within Europe (my couches in an out-of-the-way nook at Heathrow being my other hideout).

Would you know it, my rebooked Vienna flight gets cancelled 20 minutes before boarding.  Why?  "Technical reason" is all the staff is aware.  That, of course, means "we don’t know" or "we aren’t going to tell you".  I now suspect it has something to do with the events in Britain, but as of last Friday all I knew was that I really wanted to enjoy Vienna seeing as I had so little time to see the supposed cultural capital of the world in the first place.  I now get booked on a flight to Hamburg which has a connecting flight to Vienna... the flight to Hamburg leaves in 20 minutes and I have a layover of about 30 minutes ... and it is pouring rain in Hamburg... lovely... guess how that is going to turn out?  By the time I was now scheduled to arrive in Vienna, I could have traveled into München, hopped on a train for Vienna, and arrived sooner.  Fortunately, the flight path worked out flawlessly and after an aerial tour of Germany, I found myself disembarking into the dimming daylight of Ősterreich.

To Lufthansa's credit, my backpack was the second on the baggage claim belt.  That just took my breath away... During my flight into Vienna, I had dog-eared the page in my phrasebook relating to lost luggage.  All in all I was quite pleased with Lufthansa's service, despite the issues faced along the way.

However, as a strike against EU customs enforcement: despite the global security issues of that day, I completely bypassed customs by walking through the "nothing to declare" line.  In my past experience, the "nothing to declare" line just placed you in queue for a chat with a customs officer, a search if you look suspicious, and a stamp to send you on your way.  Not much, but at least something.  Arriving in Vienna, I opened the door, walked through, and was in Austria.  Interesting security glitch if you get bumped out of the international terminal and into a domestic terminal whilst in Germany...

Monday, June 25, 2007

THOUGHT - Domino's Cheesybread is Spectacular

In early May I went to Domino's, but about a week ago I realised I wasn't charged for the pizzas/cheesybread I got. Free pizza... hoorah. So I just got this letter from Dominos informing of this and offering me a free pizza as compensation for their mistake. I look at my credit card online statement thingy to see if they finally charged me for the first one, and nope... nope they haven't.

So to apologise for their error in giving me free pizza, they offered me a free pizza.

I almost feel like I should just give them the cash so that I can restore karmatic balance.