Notes from Eastern Europe
I meant to keep a blog of my travels while overseas, but I was too busy enjoying Europe to sit down and write anything. Now that I’m back in school and should be studying, recounting some fun memories from the trip sounds like a great use of my time.
Anyway, my 15 days in Southeast Europe were amazing. Best trip of my life amazing. I saw some beautiful places, met incredible people, and definitely learned more about myself. I was able to be spontaneous and change plans at the last minute. I learned how to say cheers in 4 new languages. I saw a guy with a beard that went down to his feet! Ok, I probably could have seen that in Austin, but still…
So where did I end up going?
I arrived in Europe on the 1st of January and over the next two weeks visited Budapest and Szentendre, Hungary; Bratislava, Slovakia; Vienna, Austria; Ljubljana and Bled, Slovenia; and Belgrade, Serbia. Each place was pretty awesome, but I’d have to say Slovenia is my new favorite destination. Definitely a place I want to visit again in summer, maybe tagged on with the Croatian coast and possibly a bit of Bosnia and Herzegovina, but we’ll see.
Free Walking Tours
I took free walking tours (tip-based) in Budapest, Ljubljana, and Belgrade. For around 10 bucks each, you get a 2 – 3 hour tour with an incredible guide. Each of the tours far exceeded my expectations and were great introductions to the cities. They don’t run as often in the winter, but you get smaller groups (only 4 of us in Belgrade) and get to see the city in a less touristy light. Fortunately, I happened to arrive in each of the above cities just in time to take the tour on the first morning.
Learning about the History
Ok, I’m not a history buff at all, but I really enjoyed learning about the histories of both Hungary and the former Yugoslavian countries (Serbia and Slovenia). I got a little taste on the walking tours, but it’s something I want to read more about now that I’m back. Here’s a fun fact: Belgrade has been destroyed and rebuilt over 40 times, more than any other city in the world!
Pub Crawls with Australians
I met so many Australians on the trip. Way more than half of the tourists were either from Australia or Brazil. I did several pub crawls and then went to more just with people from the hostels. The mixture of a few tourists, tons of young locals, cool bars, and local drinks was almost too much to take in. Unfortunately people can smoke inside in Europe still – and they sure do – so my clothes always ended up smelling like cigarettes. Other than that, the bars were a ton of fun.
Seeing Incredible Similarities and Differences between the Countries
I was able to visit 5 countries on the trip, Hungary, Slovakia, Austria, Slovenia, and Serbia (and a train ride through Croatia, but we won’t count that). This whole area is probably the size of Texas (I have no idea, Wikipedia’s down), but they speak several different languages, have different foods, even look different. The Hungarians came from Asia at one point in the past, so their language is more closely related to Japanese than it is to the other European languages. Vienna seems so modern and Western and just across the river sits Bratislava, a city full of scars from its communist days. Huge brutally built apartment buildings filled the horizon and the old town is still getting rebuilt after decades of neglect.
Getting Lost in a Foreign Country
For an Eagle Scout, I’m incredibly gifted at getting lost. I got lost in Vienna, Ljubljana, and Belgrade at least but usually enjoyed the places I stumbled upon. Sometimes I was just ready to get to my hostel or wherever I was supposed to be going, but by simply deciding to enjoy the scenery, it was enough to take advantage of being off the beaten path in a foreign country. Traveling by yourself, getting lost is always your own fault, so just being present and enjoying the moment can make a trip much more enjoyable. Kind of Zen-ish, but whatever.
Staying in Hostels
Hostels are generally awesome from what I experienced. As long as you’re ok with some snoring or just using a pair of earplugs, they’re definitely worth checking out. The prices are very affordable – $12-24 per night on my trip – and you get meet people from all sorts of backgrounds. There was a guy my age from California who knew that the World’s governments are all about to collapse and as such was reading up on how to create sustainable communes for when we all need to fend for ourselves… David from Colombia had a friend who was abducted by drug lords and lived in the jungle for over a year in their camp until the government rescued him. Nicholas, a 40 something year old guy from Australia, had quit his job as a personal trainer and was in the process of traveling from Moscow to Portugal, taking a few months to weave randomly through Europe’s train network on the way. If you want to spend more money, be by yourself, and not meet anyone else on your trip, book yourself a hotel room. Otherwise, I’d definitely check out a hostel. You can even pick out the best ones and book on sites like Hostel World.
Trying the Local Foods
Europe’s probably not the destination for trying the World’s most exotic foods, but I did my best to enjoy the local gastronomy as best I could on my limited student budget. I ate lots of meats, some goulash in Hungary, a pickled cabbage thing in Ljubljana, Wiener Schnitzel in Austria of course, cevapi in Serbia, and so many more things I can’t remember (or pronounce). My strategy was generally to ask the waiter or hostel receptionist what I had to try before leaving the country and then just ate that. Only once did the waiter recommend the most expensive thing on the menu, but even in a touristy restaurant in Serbia it was only like 10 bucks.
Following the Good Weather Around
My plan of where to go (like all other plans I make) changed many times over the course of the trip. By the time I reached Vienna and was engulfed in crappy weather – rainy all week with a high of 36°F – I realized I didn’t have to stay there. I had the power and freedom to go wherever I wanted and what better way to choose, especially in January, than to follow the good weather around to the best possible places? This decision led me to Slovenia a day early and ultimately to Belgrade, Serbia, a destination that I had never even considered. Sorry Salzburg, I’ll have to grace you with my presence on another trip when there’s less sleet.
Not Knowing a Word of Hungarian (or Slovenian, Serbian, etc)
As soon as I heard my first words of Hungarian, I realized that although I’ve traveled a bit before this trip, each place was either English- or Spanish-speaking and Southeast Europe would be much different. While I don’t know much Spanish, I sure knew a lot more than Hungarian. There’s something about being in a country and understanding absolutely zero of a conversation, store sign, or subway map that’s just plain cool. Seeing the Cyrillic Alphabet was even cooler in Serbia. Obviously other people speak other languages, but it’s just pretty fascinating that there are so many different ones that have developed over the years.
Taking the Public Transportation
Subways, buses, trains, whatever the vehicle may be, are all pretty cool ways to get a glimpse into life in a foreign country. It seems like everyone takes the subway there. In Austin, a trip downtown on the city bus (as observed last Friday night) can put you in close proximity with homeless people talking loudly to themselves, screaming sorority girls (who end up getting kicked off the bus), and all sorts of interesting people. I guess I did see two guys screaming on the tram in Budapest, but it seems like a more accurate slice of life than at home. Maybe I’m just more observant or open-minded when traveling. Regardless, I enjoy the public transportation in foreign countries. Maybe I’m just weird.
Sunsets and Sunrises
Maybe it’s just because the days were shorter, but the sunrises and sunsets seemed exceedingly gorgeous most days on the trip. I’ve seen incredible sunsets before in some cool places, like Maui for instance, but the sunset in Budapest seemed to be painted with an elaborate pallet of colors I couldn’t begin to describe. I don’t usually wake up in time for sunrises, but one morning in Ljubljana, a guy was snoring so loudly in the hostel that I decided around 5am that I’d just go out and see the city instead of laying restlessly in bed for another few hours. It was in the mid-20s and a bit breezy, but so stunning I almost forgot that my hands were going numb. I think I took something like 100 pictures of the sunrise and its reflections in the Ljubljanica River that morning. The pictures don’t even do it justice, but just so you get an idea, here’s one from Budapest:
I think I only met 5 Americans on the whole trip. Australians and Brazilians seem to travel heaps more than we do. Also they say heaps.
Everyone in Europe smokes. The bars smell like smoke and after a while everything smells like smoke. All my clothes, even me. It’s pretty gross, but I think most places are progressing more towards a smoke-free culture – however slowly – much like the US.
The day I arrived in Budapest was the first day of the new Hungarian constitution. From what I gathered, the political party in power had recently acquired a super-majority of sorts and decided to change the constitution to their liking. There was a huge celebration downtown and of course an even huger protest next door. Protesting is still a fairly new concept in post-communist Hungary, so it was pretty exciting to be able to see all of these politics in action. I later read that the EU was pretty unhappy with the direction Hungary is going, more authoritarian again I guess, so we’ll have to wait and see what happens. So it goes.
Foreigners know more about US politics than most Americans do. I can’t count the number of times people from half way around the planet would ask me what I thought about the last Republican Primary Debate. It’s pretty weird. I assumed everyone would know who Obama was, but the level of interest in American politics was very surprising. I couldn’t tell you the name of a single one of their presidents.
However, I got to meet the President-elect of Slovenia, which was pretty cool. We were on a free walking tour in Ljubljana and some guy in a suit came over and decided to say hello. Well, apparently he was the Mayor of Ljubljana and was recently elected to be President of Slovenia. So I’ve got that going for me, which is nice.
The Hungarian language really is weird. The accent is always on the first syllable and they can add lots of endings on to change the meaning of the word. Our tour guide on the free walking tour told us the longest word in the Hungarian language, megszentségteleníthetetlenségeskedéseitekért, which apparently means, “due to your continuous pretending to be indesecratable” or something (thanks Wikipedia!). Anyway, it’s more closely related to Japanese than all the other European languages (except Finish apparently).
Belgrade has the unique distinction of being the city destroyed and rebuilt the most times, somewhere around 40. It’s situated at the confluence of two of Europe’s main rivers, the Sava and the Danube, so it’s a pretty good location and one that pretty much every empire wanted at some point or another.
In several publications, Belgrade, Serbia is routinely ranked the number 1 party city in the world. Who would have guessed? In the NATO bombings in 1999, the residents were afraid they’d bomb the bridges over the Sava and Danube which would have effectively cut the city in half, so they decided to gather in large crowds on said bridges in hope that no one would be cruel enough to bomb a bridge full of civilians. Well, in typical Belgrade fashion, apparently just standing there would be too boring, so in the midst of bombings throughout the city, they erected several stages and had a huge non-stop party on the bridges. Rakija (a Serbian homemade alcohol), live music, dancing, all in the midst of a huge bombing campaign. Serbia, man…
In 1993/94, Yugoslavia experienced the highest inflation ever (ultimately passed by the current rates in Zimbabwe) and bills as high as 500,000,000,000 dinars could be used to buy a loaf of bread or something. Since then, they’ve revalued the Serbian dinar, but I was still able to come across one of these old bills (see below).
Crap, that was a long post. It only begins to scratch the surface of how awesome my trip was. I’ll definitely be doing a lot more travel now, just have to keep saving up some money.
I guess the only question left is, where to go next?