All of us might wish at times that we lived in a more tranquil world, but we don't. And if our times are difficult and perplexing, so are they challenging and filled with opportunity.

Robert Kennedy

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Lyndsey, Me and a bunch of Asians.

Looking forward to a trip for many months can be tricky as sometimes it doesn't live up to your expectations. Lyndsey and I started planning our Christmas vacation back in early October when we were wondering what it would be like to be away for the holidays for the first time in our lives. We chose two cities, Vienna, Austria and Prague, Czech Republic, that neither of us had ever been to. It seemed to take forever to get here and now it's over. Isn't that the way it always goes?
Our train compartment
We decided to leave from Chisinau. Sure, Bucharest is closer to Cahul, where I live, but we decided to meet in Chisinau. Our friends Conrad and Lindsay had left the day before for Argentina and they needed some stuff to be done around their apartment so we volunteered and stayed there for a few days before departure. It was a good break between site and vacation so we weren't completely culture shocked. We arrived in Chisinau on Sunday the 18th and spent a few days getting some last minute things done. We had to get our final Hepatitis shots from Medical, get our travel medical cards from Admin, get a few things for the trip etc. It was a nice relaxing few days before the travel extravaganza. We were taking an overnight train from Chisinau to Bucharest, Romania. The train left at 5:30pm on Tuesday the 20th. We got to the train station way early and walked around trying to find a place to exchange some of our Moldovan currency for some Romanian currency. We had been told prior that Romania was always hesitant to take Moldovan Lei as no one really needed it there. We struck out multiple times and just decided to risk it. The train itself was pretty comfortable. We were in a 4 bed car and had 1 Romanian roommate. It wasn't too roomy but it was nice to have a place to sleep. There were two things that I didn't like about this 12 hour train ride, one - it was freaking hot and two - the border cross. For some reason, they pumped the heat on this train like it was 40 below outside. It was SO hot that it was hard to sleep as I kept waking up sweating. The border check took 4 hours. Yes, you read that correctly. For one, they have to switch the wheels going from Moldova into Romania as Moldova trains are still on the Soviet system and Romania is on the European system. So they have to remove and replace the wheels. 

The train stops in Moldova and the Moldovan border patrol boards the train and checks everyone's passports. Being an American traveling from 2 non-native countries they asked us a lot of questions. After about 2 hours, the train starts moving again, crosses the border then stops and the Romanian border patrol boards the train and does the same thing. Then the baggage/customs people board and checks everyone's bags. It was a long process. Finally we got moving again. We had met a fellow American, Nolan while we were waiting. He was traveling through Europe by himself on his way down to Turkey. For the first few hours he was fun to talk to, but as the night went on, we realized it was time to go our separate ways. As we had spent months being schooled in how to not stick out as Americans, Nolan had not had such training and was loud and asking too many questions, being sarcastic to people who spoke little English who thought he was just being rude and just wanted to keep talking all night long. We all finally fell asleep although it wasn't a solid sleep as the compartment was inexplicably hot. We arrived in Romania at approximately 8am. From the train we took another train to the airport. The instant we walked into the airport it was a different world. There were restaurants and stores and we were very happy. We had breakfast at Burger King (a luxury these days) and waited for our flight. We boarded Austrian Airlines and it was like every seat was first class. There was plenty of room, it was comfortable, not incredibly full and the flight was only about an hour. We landed in Vienna and followed our explicit instructions to our hostel, Wombats at the Naschmarkt. I had never stayed in a hostel before so I was really interested to see what it would be like. The moment we stepped up out of the underground we new we were in a different world. Hell, even before we exited the train. Everything was SO CLEAN! I think we were in shock. We were pointing at everything and smiling and giggling and being stupid. We arrived at the hostel and it was beautiful. Lyndsey, who had stayed in hostels before, remarked that it was probably the nicest hostel she had ever seen. We were placed in a 4 bed room but no one else ever showed up so we had it all to ourselves, even with a bathroom en suite. Lyndsey was so excited to pee in a toilet. It's the little things really. It would've been easy to hole up in our room all day and just enjoy sleeping on a comfortable bed but we decided we should probably go out and see Vienna. We got a map from the front desk (which wasn't the greatest) and headed out to find a Christmas market. It took us a while as we were still a little star struck by all the pretty buildings. We finally found one and had some delicious eats.  
My homemade waffle with whipped cream, cinnamon and chocolate. (I asked for caramel, but what am I gonna do? Complain????)
We walked around the commercial part of Vienna and found a Starbucks. (I know...sacrilege where there is world famous Viennese coffee to drink at Starbucks was still really good!) 
Starbucks! Nothing says Christmas like Gingerbread Lattes!

 We walked around for a while but it had been a long few days of traveling so we headed back to our hostel. The hostel had a laundry room on the basement floor...WITH DRYERS!!!!! (A big luxury to us) So we decided to do some laundry while having some drinks in the bar in the hostel. We met a new friend, Ty, who was from Japan and traveling through Europe. He was hilarious and we enjoyed his company. There were a LOT of Asians traveling and Ty agreed with me and said that there are always a lot of Asians, Indians and Americans wherever he travels. I mean when we make up so much of the world population, I guess your always bound to run into those three ethnic groups. After our laundry was finished we headed to sleep. We woke up the next morning. We walked through the open air market across form our hostel and it was beautiful. We decided to treat ourselves to a heart meal and settled on an Italian place that had the biggest homemade raviolis I had ever seen. I had Caprese soup which was basically Tomato Cream soup with basil and mozzarella balls floating in it and then Truffle and Garlic Raviolis in a butter sauce. They were ridiculous. 
My raviolis!

The Naschmarkt!
The rest of the day we had the intention of going to Mozart's grave. We went to the Belvedere Palace which was huge and beautiful. 

Belvedere Place
We never did find the damn cemetery. I'm sure we walked around in circles for hours but we missed it somehow. I was disappointed but it couldn't ruin the day. So we headed back to the center of town and found the Haus of Musik museum which was really cool and I got to virtually conduct the Vienna Philharmonic orchestra. It was a big ego trip, especially after the 'excellent' review I got from the computer.

Me admiring Mozart at the Haus of Musik.

We wound up eating dinner at Subway. Not what you'd call exotic but still delicious after 6 months of no sandwiches. We headed back to the hostel and had to say goodbye to our friend Ty as we were heading to Prague in the morning and he was going on to Prague. He was good people.

Me, Ty and Lyndsey.
We woke up the next morning and had to find our bus to Prague which turned out not to be too easy. We took the right train but NO ONE at the train station had any idea where the "Student Agency" was. Our bus left at 10:30am and we found the station at 10:28am. Luck was on our side because the bus was AWESOME! There was a bus attendant who brought us cappuccinos and hot chocolate whenever we wanted and there were TV's at every seat where you could watch movies, TV shows or play games with other passengers.

My seat on Luxury Bus.

It was luxurious. The bus ride was 5 hours long but when we arrived in Prague it felt like no time had passed. We arrived in Prague on the National Day of Mourning for Vaclav Havel. He had passed away a few days earlier and it was an international state event. The Clintons were there for the funeral. Thankfully, coming in by bus, we avoided the airport nightmare. When we stepped out of the train we were right in Wenceslas Square and were in the middle of the candlelight vigil. It was really nice to see an entire nation appreciate one of their leaders. When you're always surrounded by negativity, it's really nice to see an entire country show their respect, regardless of political views.
Vaclav Havel candlelight vigil.
Prague was beautiful. It had a different vibe than Vienna, but it was beautiful. We headed to our hostel which wasn't far from the square. It certainly wasn't as luxurious as the Vienna one but it had it's own charm. We were in a room with 6 other people. There was a loft with 2 beds so we claimed that quickly. There were 3 New Zealanders and the rest, of course, were Asians. We headed out into the city and went to Old Town Square. There was a huge Christmas Market.

Christmas Market view from the Tower.
I got Kielbasa on a roll and it was delicious. I could really get into this Bohemian cuisine. It was raining slightly and a little chilly and unfortunately I had walked a hole in the bottom of my boot so my feet were wet. I was not happy. We went on a search for a pub but I was pretty tired so I hit a wall pretty hard. I don't really remember getting back to the hostel after the pub search failed but I crashed out pretty hard. When I woke up the next morning, I felt a million times better even though my boots were still wet. Lyndsey had the same problem so we were both a little cranky. Walking around with wet feet isn't enjoyable at all! But it was Christmas Eve and we wanted to see the city. We headed up to the Prague Castle and it was a beautiful view of the entire city. We walked up what seemed to be a million steps but it was worth it. It was a tiny city on the top of the hill. We watched the changing of the guard and took in the sites and slowly got over our crankiness. I couldn't help thinking about Stripes because the guards still wore similar uniforms as the Czechoslovakia guards at the border patrol in that movie. 

Changing of the Guard.

The Steps leading out of the Castle.
Lyndsey had some mulled wine and I decided to try some 'Grog' mainly because I like the word. I didn't know what it was, it tasted like a warm glass of whiskey, which may have been exactly what it was but it was really good and I felt warm all over. We went back down to Old Town Square and were going to partake in a "Beer Tour" that we had found online. We got there really early so we spent some time in an Irish Pub and had some more Mulled Wine. What is mulled wine? It is warm wine and they float oranges and different nuts and berries in the bottom. It is ridiculously soothing. We went to wait for the beer tour but the guide never showed up. An American couple from DC showed up too so they were equally disappointed. Since it was Christmas Eve, everything was shutting down early. The only place we could find that was open was a Chinese restaurant which was actually great. We made it an early night. When we got back to the hostel, we decided to watch a movie and relax. While we were watching, another Asian arrived, Alex. He was from Korea and was traveling through Europe while he was on break from school in Canada. He spoke really great English and was adorable. He asked what we were doing for Christmas and we told him we were planning on taking a free tour of the city so he asked if he could join us. The next morning, it didn't feel like Christmas exactly. Elliott, the New Zealander, got a morning phone call from his Mom and he said "Meery Christmas, mum" and that's when we realized that it was Christmas. Alex was already up and said that another Korean, Ku, had arrived after we had gone to sleep and he would be joining us too. As per usual, it was Lyndsey, Me and the Asians. Alex and Ku were hilarious and we greatly enjoyed spending the day with them. We found this website called Prague Free Tours where they don't charge you for the tours, you just tip them at the end of it. We had a guide, Karel, and he was AWESOME! I usually don't enjoy tours but this guy was a theatre major and involved everyone in the tour, we re-enacted King Wenceslas murder, he joked with everyone, learned where we were all from, even had Lyndsey participate in a portion of history.
Karel and Lyndsey re-enact some Czech history.
The tour ended and Alex and Ku decided to continue on to the "Pub Crawl" tour but we decided against it. We said our goodbyes and we decided to go back to the hostel and dry off as it was raining again and again we had wet feet. Grrrrr. On the way back, I was hungry so I grabbed some McDonalds. We decided to have a big Christmas dinner but it wasn't for hours away so I just wanted a snack. On the way to the hostel, there was a random open shoe store and both Lyndsey and I found great deals and bought new boots. With dry feet, the world was better! Back at the hostel, the Wi-Fi was down so we decided to head back to McDonalds were there was free Wi-Fi and Skype with our families. It was sad to see everybody in the familiar place without me but it was really nice to get to talk to them at all. We all joked around for as long as we could. I was in McDonalds (surrounded by Asians). After about an hour, Lyndsey skyped with her parents, her boyfriend and me with my family so we decided to head out to dinner. We walked around and found a little restaurant that was serving Christmas dinner. It was this cool little Jazz bar and the food was ridiculous! We took our time and ate every course and just enjoyed it. We headed back to the hostel and had to pack again. Alex and Ku returned from the Bar Crawl after we fell asleep. The next morning Alex was really anxious to tell us about the Bar Crawl but we had to catch our bus back to Vienna. So he walked with us so he could chat with us. Ku was still passed out. We said our goodbyes and got back on to our bus of luxury. Again, the bus ride went way too fast and was way too awesome. Since it wasn't raining like the last time we were able to see the beautiful Czech and Austrian countryside. Inexplicable.
We arrived back in Vienna at Wombats. This time we were in an 8 bed room so we didn't have the luxury of our own room. We did some more laundry, went out for one last fantastic dinner and got a good night's sleep. In the elevator, I saw this sign and it amused highly:
We're not what you'd call "loved" around the world...
We had to wake up at 4am to catch our flight. We waited for a lot of trains but made our flight on time. It was a really quick flight to Bucharest and we headed to the train station. It was 8:30am and our train didn't leave until 7:40pm. So we checked our bags and spent the day in Bucharest. It's a cool city. It was a little chilly though so we found a movie theatre and they were only showing "Tower Heist" which was good. I don't know if it's a great movie, but after not being in a movie theatre in 6 months and being in a warm was good.

Tower Heist in Romanian.
We got back to the train station at about 6 to have dinner and ran into Jamie and Michael (two other volunteers). They had just returned from Madrid and Barcelona. They, however, were taking the bus back to Moldova so we just chatted with them for a bit and they headed out. The train was once again ridiculously hot and full so it wasn't a great night's sleep. The border cross this time was at 4am so it was even more annoying. But we arrived and survived the entire week.
It was really nice to get away for a while but there are certain things I will never understand about traveling. 

  1. The shoes that people choose to walk around in all day fascinate me. I saw more girls in high heels on cobbled streets and it is just fascinating to me that they don't die.
  2. Photos are way more important than moments.
  3. Why do people feel the need to update their status that they 'in Prague' more than just be in Prague? Don't get it. The lobby of the hostel, where there was free Wi-Fi was way more crowded than any attraction we were at in any city. Depressing.
  4. Phones on vibrate and silent is a thing of the past. Now it's the loudest ring possible, and oh, people will ANSWER!
  5. If a restaurant doesn't have Wi-Fi, it has way less foot traffic.
  6. Anyone sensing a theme here?
Yes, I'm sick of technology. I'm sick of it being the most important things in our life. Yes, I'm guilty of it but it's just taken over our lives. Get the phones out of your hands people and enjoy what's around you! It's out of control! (Stepping off soap box...)
Mostly what I enjoyed was just seeing different people and meeting nice people and have conversations with people I'll more than likely never see again. Staying in a room with 6 strangers may sound like a nightmare to some people but it was actually really fun. I'm sure there are horror stories from hostels as well but I had a really good experience. It's also really important to find good people to travel with. Lyndsey and I don't have a lot of the same interests but we're also both open to trying things. And we're pretty easy going and get along well and that's pretty important. I think the times we wanted to kill each other were kept to the bare minimum. Traveling with someone you're not compatible with sounds like a nightmare. 
So that was Vienna and Prague. I would go back to either city in a heartbeat, wouldn't even mind residing in either one. I will definitely be back to Vienna because I will at some point see the grave of Mozart, plus I really want to go to Salzburg so I can do "The Sound of Music" tour.
But now, it's on to prepping for the next trip to London and Paris with some Too Faced girls from CA. I'm pretty excited for it.
Happy New Year!

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