Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Hills Really Are Alive with the Sound of Music, Just Not in Budapest

So I wouldn’t call Hungary a third world country (my previous experiences make this label seem far too severe), but it is certainly a fallen country. Allow me to illustrate. As we arrived in "Buda," we were able to look out over the Danube River to the "Pest" side that comprises Budapest. From afar I was struck by the city’s beauty; shining castles, ancient buildings, the grandeur of the Parliament building, a sense of real history. But upon up close examination, things took on a far darker hue.

In our three day weekend adventure, Danny and I were witness to both the light and dark side of the capital city. We ate traditional Hungarian food as we were serenaded by a gypsy band. We went to see the Hungarian opera Xerxes in the exquisite Magyar Állami opera house (see photo below). We climbed to the top of the citadel overlooking the entire city and ate lunch. We continued our tradition of guided bus tours and I took hundreds of photos of the rich architecture, statues, and sights that saturated the city.

However, for the first time since arriving in Europe, we glimpsed the effects of poverty. Prostitutes were out on the streets openly soliciting men as they passed. Garbage, graffiti, revealing smells, and grime permeated all parts of the city. The Hungarian police were extremely vigorous, arresting or questioning people at least half a dozen times (that I saw) in our short stay. A drugged and homeless man came up and grabbed the hand of one of our friends, kissed it repeatedly, and then immediately tried to box him. All of this was mixed in with the remnants of palaces and buildings which echoed the former power and influence of the country.

The cause of this decline was detailed on our bus tour throughout Budapest. We learned about a king who was tied to his royal throne with his crown upon his head and burned to death, grand palaces that were blown up or destroyed during the communist era, another king who was placed in a barrel filled with nails and pushed down a steep hill into the river, witches who were hunted and killed until the 18th century, and the Jewish holocaust during the Nazi era, just to name a few of the bloody horrors that were included in this city’s history. Just your average happy little city tour, right? Clearly, Budapest’s tragic past accounted for the shabby, faded, and deteriorated state of its buildings, government, and even the depressed state of many of its people.

The final event that solidified my wary sentiments towards the city happened when a group of law students returned from a river cruise and explained what they had witnessed. While enjoying the views of the palaces lit up at night, someone noticed a man at the top of an extension bridge over the river. He had managed to climb to the very top and was riding an eagle sculpture which crowned the structure. Police, emergency crews, and a crane were below trying to get him down. As they watched, the man lit himself on fire, jumped off the eagle, and landed suddenly on the bridge’s pavement, not making it into the water. To say the least, this group of friends was stunned.

As we loaded the return bus, Danny and I were in agreement that, although we were glad to have experienced it the one time, we would not be visiting Budapest anytime again and that touring Austria would be a welcome departure.

And tour Austria we did.

This past week the class traveled to both Salzburg and Vienna for lectures on arbitration law by Austrian professors and judges. I’m not sure what Danny learned in his classes, but while we gallivanted around after class, I learned that Austria is a truly stunning and diverse country.

In Salzburg (the filming location for The Sound of Music) we used our free afternoon to visit ice caves in the Alps. It was incredible! It’s hard to speak to such beauty and do it justice, but I can try. Imagine yourself five thousand feet above a green valley with a winding river, Austrian village, and castle atop a hill. As you look out you are eyelevel with the distant clouds and snowcapped peaks. The wind is fresh and smells like pine as you breathe deeply. Crows play in the breeze, carrying themselves high and low in large, single swoops. Your god’s-eye-view above the world and the miniature size of the homes below makes you feel big and small at the same time. You are awed by the valley’s magnificence.

In order to get this view on top of the mountain we rode a bus, took a cable car up a sheer cliff face, and hiked for an hour. The final stretch of hiking was electrifying. Being so high and feeling the air pressure and temperature change, while the clouds misted on us was invigorating. Once we arrived at the mouth of the cave we put on our warm clothing gear (well I did, Danny and a few of our friends had to endure with flip-flops and no sweaters), blew out a warm steam of breath, and headed in.

The ice cave was like a winter paradise, I had no trouble imagining Santa’s elves sledding down the ice sculptures or yetis lurking in the shadows. We followed our guide with candle lanterns on a wooden path and climbed up, down, and through remarkable ice formations. The sheer size of the cave and the variety of ice formations; some delicate (as with the slender rows of icicles), and some powerful (as with wall of ice that devoured the wood planks to the point that they needed to be reconstructed) was humbling.

After we left the frozen wonderland we started our trek down the mountain in the warmer open air. The sky mercilessly held of raining until we returned to our bus, where we relaxed feeling sweaty and contented, and it began to downpour. The ride back down the mountain in the rain was again beautiful, but in a new blustery way. Being in nature rejuvenated us. With the remainder of our day we enjoyed the company of our new friends, eating food, and belly-laughing over stories (much like today, which we spent in Vienna at a street side coffee shop). Salzburg’s ice caves truly were the highlight for both of us so far… but this weekend we depart for Venice, Italy. A city which we have been told is the most romantic in the world.

Until our return, ciao!

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Hallo Austria!

It is fine-time that I should revive this blog. And what better time to pay homage to the blog’s name than on a fantastic trip? At this point, I really do feel like I have the whole world in my hands.

One week has passed since we departed Phoenix for Linz. This is hard to believe because with all the business of traveling, getting settled, adjusting to the time change and jet lag, and being entirely unaccustomed to the continuous cloudy gloom hiding the sun, I have completely lost my sense of time. It feels like we just arrived. Or I have just woken up from a very deep sleep.

As I already mentioned, the weather has been less than idyllic, drizzling most days, with the blue sky gracing us with her presence only a few times through open patches in the cloud cover. However, this has given me plenty of time to rest indoors, and to write down an account of our adventures so far.

So here they are.

I should probably begin with our reasons for traveling across the globe with Austria as our destination. In early November, the idea of Danny studying law in a program abroad was placed on the table. He found a program through Georgia State University’s law program and we attended a seminar together. I, having the heart of a gypsy by nature, was instantly sold on the idea of a summer in Europe together and began making plans. My husband, Danny, having a more conservative and pragmatically-minded constitution, needed to think over the costs, benefits, his responsibilities and duties some more (thus he is the one in law school and not myself).

We debated back and forth about the pros and cons of being away for the summer, and after several tense conversations, high emotions on both sides, and invocation of the “happy wife, happy life” clause, we packed our bags.

We left for Austria on a Friday and after 26 hours of continuous travel by plane, train, or car, arrived late Saturday evening to Linz. We grabbed a taxi, and with our vast knowledge of over five German words or phrases, directed our cabbie to the hotel. The cabbie in turn took it upon himself to mock our “foreign” accents by repeating everything we said in English with an over-exaggerated nasally babble. Apparently, English sounds as funny and unattractive to Austrians as German sounds to us.

The hotel we are staying in is also a dormitory used by the nearby University, which means our room is furnished like a dorm for two college students. We have pushed together our two single beds and rearranged the desks, and all-in-all it is cozy. With a good sized closet, internet access, and a private bathroom I have no complaints. Our view from the 10th floor (see photo) looks out over Linz, and we get front row seats to the sunset (albeit cloudy) each day at about 9:00 pm.

Our first few days have revolved around exploring the town, meeting the students (about 40 from all over the U.S.), professors and getting settled. Here are a few highlights:

The airport in Munich, Germany was quite possibly the cleanest, most organized, and quietest airport in the world. The contrast with the American airports we were just in was astounding. The people were completely silent as they waited for their bags, and there was an air of efficiency that isn’t explainable. Even the line waiting for baggage was different in its calmness. No one was crowded at the front to get their bags first, in fact there was a good 15 feet before the first person was lined up waiting patiently. Danny immediately decided that this was evidence of my family being from Germany. He said that only a place like this could have produced the quiet, task-oriented, and efficient Streff family. Then we both burst into laughter, as we tried to imagine what the airport in Rome, where his people come from, would look like.

An hour after arriving we dragged our exhausted bodies to the welcome dinner at Yosef’s, where we ate a traditional Austrian food (think lots of meat and potatoes), Danny drank beer, and I learned quickly (after a long and surprising swig) that water comes in “still” and “gas” in Austria. We were introduced to the somehow not-seemingly-exhausted group of students (These people are professional revelers. So far, they have outdone the intensity of several fraternities and keep going strong). For dinner, we had blood sausage (delicious), along with various colored sausages and meats, and lots of the only vegetable provided: boiled cabbage. We excused ourselves early and stumbled to the street where we got on the city street-car. In our dazed state, we soon realized we had no idea what our hotel looked like, or how to find it at night. As we exited the tram, we located our hotel based off of one fact: Our room is on the 10th floor, so our hotel must be tall. Our logic proved true and we slumped into our beds defeated for 15 hours.

The next day we met a few students on their way to the city and did a sort of self-guided tour of the Hautplatz or city-center. We walked through the central square with its beautifully colored traditional buildings, churches, and fountains. We explored a neighborhood, visited a church built in 8th century, and took photos at the Schloss museum, formerly a castle. When I say took pictures, I mean took pictures. My love for photography has become a slight obsession, and Danny now threatens to hide my camera somewhere to make me walk faster. I am completely content to languish in the angles and colors, which I maintain make me see everything from a different, more observant, perspective.

While Danny is in class, I have been flexing the muscles of my wanderlust by exploring the city and surrounding area. I have found wonderful graffiti, green hidden pathways, garden gnomes, climbing walls that would make Johann green with envy, and that Austrians are completely at ease with staring for long periods of time, but not uber friendly. Again, Danny teasingly attributes this as proof of this being “my people.”

In Passau, Germany we attended a lecture and then bummed through the city hopping into churches, museums, and cafes to avoid the rain (Leave it to Phoenicians to not bring an umbrella). We had soup in a restaurant which was formerly a jail and execution room. We had hot chocolate in a café that was a fantastic tribute to Alice in Wonderland. And we trounced through floor upon floor of a glass museum. Danny ate weinerschnitzel with cranberry sauce and ordered beer (Nick, you will be happy to know that weinerschnitzel is scrumptious and is actually an inoffensive nick-name). Apparently, in Germany when you order a beer you don’t specify the type, because each restaurant only has one, the house beer. It came in a stein, and there was so much foam that Danny had a beer mustache. It was adorable. I was completely caught off guard, when I asked (in English) if I could throw away a plastic bottle in a grocery store, to have the teller take it, put it in a specially marked bin, print a receipt, and then give me 15 cents for recycling. I could get rich off this scheme!

Somehow, Danny is fitting all of his reading and studying into this hectic schedule, and dealing with the stress of being away from family, home, and all the political action of the upcoming primary season. Have I mentioned that I love this man? To be on a once-in-a-lifetime-trip like this with Danny, before we have kids, and with the full backing and support of our families is phenomenal. We are both truly blessed to have such an amazing opportunity and the love and encouragement of our families and friends. Danke familie! (Thank you family!) I need to start preparing for our weekend with the law program in Budapest, Hungary. So until next time: auf Wierdersehen!