Thursday, June 27, 2013

Hitchhiking in Zurich and a crisis of self-image

In the first three weeks of this trip, Flounder and I hitchhiked exactly one day. I was too ashamed to write about it until now.

I was ashamed of this fact because, as Flounder can attest to, I threw a fit before the start of the trip about how important it is to me that we hitchhike and Couchsurf and camp and keep our travel plans open. I was clear that one of my favorite parts of traveling is that nervous pit of energy in my stomach in the morning, not knowing where I would go that day or where I would sleep that night.

But I found myself, after three days in Zurich, waking up with a knot in my stomach the size of a small child and this time I didn’t like it. I found myself making excuses for why we shouldn’t hitch. It was cold. It was rainy. I’d heard that hitching was difficult in Switzerland. Flounder was not excited about the prospect of standing on the side of a road with our thumbs out or soliciting rides from strangers at petrol stations, but bless his heart, he said we should go for it.
Packing up and getting ready to leave
So we took the train about 15 kilometers to a petrol station on the main highway toward Austria and Germany. Never mind that the ride cost about $15. As most hitchers will tell you, hitching out of a city is difficult; you need to get into the outskirts to have much luck at all.

We walked in the cold and the threatening rain with our heavy packs, walked into the petrol station lot, and immediately felt like bums. We were disheveled, walked with lumbering strides, and I was wearing about all the clothing I had brought, including a pair of Flounder’s jeans, in an (ineffectual) attempt to keep warm.
Streamlined cars in Zurich
We made our sign (AUT or DEU) and stood next to the ramp where cars would drive onto the fast, sleek expressway. We tried not to feel so terribly, terribly out of place, but surrounded by streamlined black cars and people in all black attire, we didn't succeed. In fact, the longer we stood there, the more sheepish we felt.
Feeling sheepish
We tried to keep our spirits up. I tried to distract Flounder with stories of past hitchhiking foibles and successes and with a game of 20 questions, but he became dispirited, especially after we had waited for 45 minutes with no luck. My personal longest waiting time in all my months and countries of hitchhiking till that point was about half an hour.

‘But I never hitched in Western Europe,’ I assured him. ‘It’s much harder here. The roads are so big and so fast that we can only wait in petrol stations, we can only get dropped in petrol stations, too.’
We hoped these two dogs driving their RV would stop for us, but even they refused
What I didn’t tell him was that I could understand why people were hesitant to take us. I’m not sure I would have wanted to pick us up. I, especially, looked like a ragamuffin (I hope that’s not one of those obscure formerly racist terms that now seems quaint until you read about its horrible, degrading history of usage…). I was wearing Flounder’s jeans, which are too big for me (as I put them on for the first time I had a horrifying vision of not being able to zip them up, so I was relieved and then ashamed of myself for feeling relief when they were much too big), as well as his olive green windbreaker (again, too big). My gender was barely distinguishable beneath my dress-up clothing.

An aside about hitchhiking: being female helps. Not just in attracting the pervs who will try to have sex with you in exchange for the ride, but also in comforting those drivers who worry that hitchhikers are serial killers.

Instead of comforting and/or attracting potential rides, I looked like a small, lumpy man.

After a little more than an hour of waiting (a short time, I know) the wind began to pick up, the clouds threatened more rain, and we were damn cold. Flounder, bless his heart again, was willing to stay out there as long as I wanted to. So it was I—adventurous, unflappable, unthwartable Sarah—who threw in the towel. Faced with waiting hours at petrol stations for rides that may or may not come and faced with cold and rainy weather, I threw in the towel.

We took the train to Munich. It cost about $200.
Flounder giving me his version of my patented 'the look' on the train to Munich
The bigger cost was my confidence in my self-image. I was used to being that adventurous, unflappable, unthwartable Sarah. If I wasn’t her, then who was I?

The short answer to that is: I am a bit softer now and a bit more desirous of comfort. But successful hitchhiking in Serbia, Romania, and now Armenia, along with Couchsurfing in Switzerland, Germany, and Slovakia have reassured me that I still love this type of travel.

The long answer to that question—‘who am I?’—well that’s a lifetime project, isn’t it? But traveling is a great way to figure it out.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Slovakian primer: Chuck Norris, good plumbing, and castles everywhere.

1.       Slovakians voted to name a bridge after Chuck Norris.

2.       In Slovakia, having celiac disease (gluten intolerance) classifies you as handicapped.

3.       Slovakians would also appreciate if the rest of Europe (and the world) was aware that their country does indeed have running water, proper sewage systems, and paved roads.

The source for these tidbits, learned during our time in the country, was Katka, our Couchsurfing host in Trenčin, a small town with a lovely castle and fortress. She picked us up from the train station with a big hug and a smile on her face that never left, not for the three days we stayed with her.
Katka and I, smiling
Katka told us about the bridge. It was a cycling bridge under development in Bratislava and would link the city to Austria. The government, wanting public support, asked for suggestions and votes for the bridge’s name. A few ideas were floated—Maria Theresa bridge, Freedom bridge. Someone suggested Chuck Norris bridge and the idea caught on. Katka herself voted for the name (‘Why not? Do we really need another “Peace bridge”?’) as did an overwhelming majority of voters. Shockingly, the government declined to comply, but the bridge was listed as “Chuck Norris” for a few weeks on Google Maps anyway.

Katka also told us about her “handicap”. On our way to her house from the train station we stopped at a grocery store. It was a surprise when she, a lithe and energetic college student, whipped out a handicap permit, attached it to her rearview mirror, and parked in a handicap spot. She explained, laughingly, that the government gave her the permit because of her gluten intolerance, but she was quick to add that she never used the spots when they were scarce, not wanting to inconvenience anyone who actually had difficulty with mobility.

Katka also parked in a handicap spot in Trenčin’s medieval city center. We were going into the town to visit its famous castle, perched (as castles often are) atop a hill.
View from the castle at night
We could have measured our time in Trenčin in castles. We visited the town’s castle at night, where we joined Slovakian tourists in watching a slapstick play set in medieval times (all in Slovakian). Luckily, bawdy humor rarely requires translation, so we laughed along at the attempts of three bumbling soldiers to find and woo three lovely beaus.

We also hiked to a ruined castle, casually perched on a hill in the countryside. As an American (where hundred-year-old buildings sometimes are protected as historical landmarks) it is hard to get used to great thousand-year-old fortresses being easily accessed—no fences, no entrance fee, no security. Katka loved to climb around the ruins and we were all three happy for a clear day and a romp in the hilly and green Slovakian countryside.
Hrad Tematin
We saw the most stunning castle of all on our drive back to Trenčin. It sat perched on a cliff in the middle of a small town of narrow roads and a smattering of houses—an unexpected sight. But maybe a castle will always be an unexpected sight for me!
Nobody expects a medieval castle!
These three castles, Katka told us, used to communicate via smoke signals in their heyday. If one castle spotted an enemy approaching, they would build a smoldering fire to alert the next castle, about twenty kilometers away, which would in turn alert the next.

And as for Katka’s last exhortation, that people stop assuming Slovakia a backwards country, let me testify. Slovakia has flawless plumbing, good transportation, and beautiful castles that you can take out of the box and play with, so to speak. In some ways, Flounder and I found the country American-like in its wide roads and proliferation of cars and big box stores.

Slovakia was also, for us, a peaceful place, away from the cities we’d been staying in and the crowds we’d been wrestling. A place to breathe pure air, take a stroll through tiny villages with their May poles up for the entire month of May (they would have a party commemorating the erection and dismantling of the pole with drinking and eating, but no dancing—that is a German tradition), and hike through forest and hills. If we occasionally came across a castle ruin, so much the better.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Romance among the umbrellas. Expectations, tour groups, and kissing in Prague.

The last time I was in Prague I was, as usual, traveling alone. Spring was budding and when the sun was out, you could pretend you didn’t need that sweater. Lovers were everywhere--young couples holding hands as they walked through the old town square and kissing in the feigned privacy of a shaded park bench.

And though I loved being a solo traveler, in complete tyrannical control of my itinerary and with no one to judge if I chose to eat cake for lunch again, I also noticed how much more I might enjoy the view of the Vltava river and Stare Mesto from the grounds of the castle if I had my tongue down someone’s throat.
View of the old town
So I was excited to return to Prague, this time with Flounder, whose hand I could hold as we walked down cobblestone streets (very picturesque but damn hard on your feet) and whom I could kiss on a park bench overlooking the gothic Tyn Church.
Tyn Church
You can’t step in the same river twice and it turns out that Prague in the full swing of tourist season is not as romantic as I remember. Unless swarms of tourists following their umbrella-wielding guide and touts handing you yet another flyer for a black light puppet show Mozart concert in a haunted sex museum give you the warm and fuzzies.
Can you spot the umbrella-ed tour guide?
 Despite our best efforts, we couldn’t find a couchsurfing host in Prague, so we stayed in a hostel. In quite comfortable bunk beds. It turns out that sleeping in a room full of (delightful and interesting) travelers is also not conducive to romance.

But these are less issues with Prague and more with me, with my memories, hopes, expectations. Because Prague is simply a beautiful and interesting city with the architecture of a Disney wet dream, a historical penchant for defenestration, and a storied literary tradition (Kafka and Kundera among others).
Spires of Prague
And though I like to participate in the beloved traveler pastime of complaining about how touristy a place has become, I at least am aware of my own contribution to this situation.

Imagine: You see a group of elderly ladies in near-matching sweater sets and slacks as they follow their umbrella-ed tour guide, listening as he repeats the same dates, numbers, and anecdotes at every historical monument in their path. Well, it’s easy to feel a delicious superiority, a tantalizing smugness. ‘God, they’re such tourists,’ you might think. But, wait. What’s that? Is that a map in your hand, a camera in your bag? Aren’t you craning your neck to look at the same impressive buildings as the sweater-set-ladies tour group? ‘The old town is so crowded,’ you think. But isn’t your wide posterior and your walking pace, as you gape around you like a drunken elephant, making that situation worse?

So what did I learn from Prague? Make reservations for that vegetarian restaurant you want to eat at, even if it’s a Monday night. If you carry an umbrella and hold it above your head, a tour group will form around you. Flounder won’t rock the bunk bed in a dorm full of people, no matter how quiet you promise to be. Always check ingredients, lest that tomato dip turn out to be beef tartar. As the conversation of the college-age travelers around you makes clear (‘Dude. I was so drunk last night.’), you are not that young anymore.
Someone to share the view with
And, perhaps most importantly, kissing someone you love on a park bench in Prague, no matter the provisional circumstances, is inescapably romantic.

Chili for Chilly Nights

Sarah and I both love to cook. We especially love cooking for other people.  When we were deciding what to bring as gifts on the trip for our hosts, our rides, and our friends, we picked several things but one was a special blend of Cajun seasonings that I whipped up and put in little baggies. We also thought for a while about what sort of food we could cook for people that would be: 

a)      Easy and quick
b)      Quintessentially American
c)       Have ingredients that are easy to find in almost any market or grocery store
d)      Be scalable from 3 to 15 servings
e)      Easy to make vegan, but still leave omnivores (like me) full (Traditionally it has browned ground beef in it)
f)       Tasty!
g)      Keeps us warm on chilly nights

We decided on chili. We’ve had several requests for the recipe so here is the best approximation we can (as neither of us ever follow a recipe). This is for about 4 people to eat as the entrée.
Sarah and I cooking chili in at a wonderful house outside Novi Sad, Serbia

1 box or two cans tomato sauce
1 can of kidney beans (dark red) (black beans are good as well)
1 teaspoon cumin (5 ml or a small spoon full) (Here is the thing, in Europe caraway is called cumin as well, what you need is the more bitter pungent cumin usually found in Indian, Moroccan and Mexican dishes.  If you can’t find it, leave it out or use a chili con carne spice mix which usually has it, caraway can be used but it will be fairly different)
A heaping of cayenne pepper or other spicy red pepper (depends on how spicy you like it, you can’t make it too spicy for Sarah or me)
1 Tablespoon Paprika (15 ml or just a big spoon full)
1 teaspoon oregano or savory (5 ml or a small spoon full)
1 medium onion (chopped)
Several stalks of celery (celery root can be good too) chopped
Several cloves of garlic, minced (green garlic use more!)
Various sweet and hot peppers (Paprika)

Optional additions: 1 can of sweet yellow corn, 100 grams Texturized vegetable protein (TVP or TSP), other various yummy garden goodies (we added fresh green peas the other night in Serbia)
Good Toppings/Bottomings (ha): sour cream or sour yogurt, chives, shredded cheese, rice or pasta
Instructions: Chop everything and sauté it in oil until soft and maybe a bit brown but before it burns.
Add the seasonings and sauté for a minute or so, add everything else and heat to a boil. Cover and simmer as long as you can stand waiting for it, the longer the better, just keep stirring it to keep it from sticking/burning. Half an hour to an hour is common.
Taste as you go and add more spices if it isn’t hot enough (spicy wise).

We often serve it over rice or pasta to make it go further. You can add toppings if you want (or to cool it back down if you were overzealous with the red pepper (always taste the pepper if you aren’t using your own it varies in spiciness a LOT, just ask our hosts in Slovakia, they could barely eat it)!
Twice so far people have said they know chili from the Simpsons. We like ours as hot as Homer does!

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Spicy Bavarian Food?!

So our plan was to see where goodwill lead us to on this trip through hitchhiking, volunteering, and couchsurfing. We actually put in some couch requests in Innsbruck Austria when we got to Zurich, but we weren’t having much luck—only one maybe. We posted a couple in Munich. Sarah had been there, I’d been to Germany many times but never Munich. When it come to Couchsurfing, my plan for finding hosts is going for people who log in often and reply a lot, also bonus points for private rooms and related interests (besides traveling, all CSers seem to share that).  Hers was going for newbies since they were usually excited by the prospect of hosting. It must work because she got a bite from a brand new host.

So after our nice time in Zurich we decided to hitch to Munich. It was chilly (much colder than we had anticipated) and rainy, but we took the train out to a gas station we’d read about on hitchwiki and broke out our laminated sign saying AUT or DEU (Austria or Gemany). It seemed like a good location, cars were going slow as they pulled out, they could see us for a while. We stayed over an hour, 4 cars stopped, they were all either going the wrong direction or only a few miles our way. 

It was looking like serious rain so we decided to just take mass transit up. We headed for the airport (closer than city center) and decided to rent a car when we found a good price….to be confirmed by phone call later. That price went up about 10 times when they called to confirm. Buses didn’t run but once a day (we’d missed it), so we took hopefully our most expensive transport of the trip, a nice comfy train to Munich.

We arrived late, in the rain, hoofed it to our host Kapil’s place and collapsed. He had a beer waiting (proper Munich style) and we chatted a bit before going to bed. We had to figure out the bedding since we were his first guests (or surfers). He’d just arrived in town a couple months earlier, transplanted from Bangalore, India. He said he hadn’t been able to get any good spicy food so we promised to make some.

We just walked around the city the first day. There was a big vegan festival as well as some Hare Krishnas about. We picked up lunch at a grocery store and went to eat in the Englisher Gardens. I also had tasty beer and relaxed there.

Traveling with a vegan girlfriend means we spend a bit more time (Sarah says: Flounder is being generous; it's a lot more time) looking for edibles than I would otherwise. We probably spend more time in grocery stores than museums. Granted, I always spent a lot of time in grocery stores while traveling, but now it is very common. Finding food in restaurants is easy as an omnivore, but harder as a vegan, so I try and go wherever she wants to eat if possible. I also keep a stash of emergency food because I get dumb when hungry, she gets hAngry. Almonds are a lifesaver!

The next day we started out by going to the Alte Pinakothek to look at some art. We were headed to the contemporary art wing, but it was closed, so old masters it was! We decided to make a game of it because (despite my two art degrees) I get bored after a few minutes in a museum of only old work. We decided to count all the mythical creatures: satyrs, dragons, demons, angels, etc.  We only went through the main galleries and we’d take a side each of the room, but then point out really interesting work to each other. There were some amazing paintings like Albrecht Durer’s self-portrait, yes the one from the Wikipedia article. There were 239 fantastical creatures in this fantastic collection. 

We met up with Kapil and headed in the stiff wind for a mildly stiff drink, bier of course! The old bier hall had a band and hundreds of people sharing tables. We sat with a Bavarian and his Filipino wife. He convinced us to try snuff! My great grandmother used to do it. I didn’t care for it… The beer, maibock, and the food, bock wurst, was good. One more museum (Technical museum with whole ships and planes and amazing cameras) ended our Bavarian explorations.

We did manage to have our first vegan doner kebab though. For those Americans who are unfamiliar, it is Europe’s version of the gyro, imported from Turkey and available EVERYWHERE. Tasty fast food (Barcelona’s is the best, imo).

All in all Munich was one of my top 3 European cities so far, it was cosmopolitan, easy to navigate, fun, has parks, museums, art. It is definitely on my return soon list. Recent immigrants like our wonderful host, Kapil, breathe new life into a city so full of history and local culture and make it a place I’d love to spend more time. (Although take note wikitravel editors, you don't have to make your city seem grander than it is, it doesn't have to be number one in Everything!)