Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Es Ist Leiwand!

“Es ist leiwand!” is one of the few German phrases I picked up while in Austria. While we probably over-killed it, it was the phrase that possibly best summed up David and my trip to Central Europe as it literally translates to “this is awesome!”

However, the story really began before even setting foot in the Czech Republic or Austria. Given that our flight was out of Madrid, I decided to go to there a day early and spend the night in a hostel and meet David the following day. The great thing about ‘Catz Hostel’ in Madrid is that is has a downstairs bar/lounge where travellers frequently pregame in order to meet people and have a few drinks. This was not my plan, but I thought I would go down and try to get some reading in (I am currently crawling though Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged). I did not read one page. Instead I sat down at a random table next to a guy who introduced himself as Gaston. Oddly enough, he happened to be from Buenos Aires, where I lived for a summer a few years ago, and so we started chatting. Come to find out, Gaston was actually heading to Prague the next day-on the same flight-and staying at the same hostel as David and me. Being that he was in Europe by himself, it only made since for this Argentine to join David and I in our beer and sausage-filled Prague adventure.

As if this wasn’t enough of a coincidence, we actually met a handful of Argentines at our hostel our first night in Prague who Gaston had gone to school with in the past (small world, huh?). Being that it was their last night in the city and our first, they decided to take us, along with a couple of Brazilian and Dominican girls, to one of the most famous clubs in the city: a five-story dance club called “Lavka”, which is located on the Vltava river. Each floor blasts different musical themes and styles, ranging from 70’s disco to rock to modern-day electronic. Let’s just say it was an appropriate way to start the trip.

The next few days pretty much consisted of David and I taking advantage of the extremely cheap beer and local cuisine (which included everything from an array of sausages, fried cheese and mayo sandwiches, Czech-style pork dishes, and pizza). The main sites we saw were the famous Charles Bridge, the Main Square with the famous astronomical cuckoo-style clock tower, and the impressively unique Prague Castle. We also rented bikes one day and cruised throughout most of the city, exploring parts that we would not have ventured to on foot.

However, despite the picturesque views and impressive architecture that Prague boasts, it has become, over the years, renowned for its nightlife. During the four-day stretch David and I went everywhere from Jazz clubs, underground tavern-style bars, a 90’s-themed dance club, and even a bar in which each table has its own tap and digitally records on a monitor how many litres of beer you have consumed. In fact, at this one particular tap-at-the-table bar, David, Gaston and I were just about the only people there (it was a Monday), aside from a group of about 25 middle-aged Thai women who were celebrating a bacheloret party of come kind; very awkward and a pretty uncomfortable (they were hitting on us), but pretty entertaining nevertheless.

The next day we headed south to Vienna, Austria. Being that it is quite an expensive city, we decided not to stay in a hostel but to Couch Surf instead. We stayed at the apartment of a girl named Sara Schamat, who is from Vienna and is studying at the university there. One of the great things about Couch Surfing is that you get to see a different side of a city, one that the locals know about and which tourists spend weeks or months trying to discover. It helps that the people are genuinely friendly and for the most part speak perfect English, as they must begin to study the language at the age of six. They also are very well educated about their history, especially WWII history. In fact, someone told us that if you attend a university you will end up taking about 8 years of World War II history throughout your life. It almost seemed as if there existed an underlying feeling of guilt that still resonated throughout the contemporary Austrian culture, which I found to be quite interesting.

So we hung out with Sara’s friends at local markets, plazas and bars while they showed us around the city, telling us where to go and what to eat. They also introduced us to one of my favorite things about Vienna: they have a beer delivery service. Yes, that’s right, you heard correctly. In Vienna, there is a delivery system that mirrors that of pizza in the US, except it’s with beer-probably one of the greatest concepts I have experienced since being on the other side of the pond. Is also noteworthy that Austrian beer is among the best in Europe; I’ll just say we didn’t see many people drinking cocktails while we were there.

Aside from the eating, drinking, and hanging out with locals, the actual city is exceptionally impressive. It boasts some of the most beautiful architecture in Europe and, for a large city, is very clean. In fact, it is the greenest city in all of Europe and has been voted as the number one place to live in the world for two consecutive years, and the reasons, as you can see, are quite obvious.

However, there is a very interesting juxtaposition between the old and the new in Vienna, as contemporary art can be found next to and inside classical buildings as well as the existence of random establishments such as the “Anal Bar” and “Sperm help-desk” (both of which are probably designed to look a little too realistic) in plazas surrounded by fancy cafes and contemporary art museums. Yet, it only seems appropriate for it to be this way, as Vienna itself seemed to me to be a city of contrasts. There are obvious contrasts that exist between the locals and the Turkish immigrants, between the lingering WWII hangover and foresight to be one of the most modern cities in the western world, and, like so many European countries today, between the old and traditional generation and that of the 21st century.

*I would also like to thank everyone for the birthday wishes. In Spain, the tradition is to pull the ears of the birthday boy/girl: one pull for each year they have. Yesterday afternoon when I returned home my ears were red and my e-mail was full, and that meant a lot to me.

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