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.

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