So there I was, in the carriage on the train at its final destination in Vienna, frantically pulling things out of my bag, and crawling around on my hands and knees looking for my purse. Then they told me I had to get off the train, and that’s how I made my arrival into Austria: tired, unwashed, covered in plague blisters and mosquito bites, and robbed. Also, a tad pissed off.
Just so we’re all aware, I was unwashed because I had been on a train all night, not because I am an unhygienic minger.
Fortunately a legion of female relatives, friends, school teachers, and colleagues, saying sternly in my head, “No time to be a wimp, put on your big girl pants and fix the problem that needs to be fixed,” prohibited me from crying and instead sent me to the police station. I am now the owner of a police report that I can’t read because it’s in German.
Police report in hand, and 90 euros left in my possession – thank you providence! It would have been a miserable day without some cash to do helpful things like buy a tram ticket, pay for somewhere to sleep, get something to eat, things of that ilk – I made my way to what will forever be The Best Hostel Ever TM, where the lovely people on reception let me use their phone to call the banks in America to cancel my cards – that was an HOUR phone call! And then I was off to the embassies to seek their advice/assistance.
I’m a dual citizen of the USA and the UK so I went to both embassies, and goodness gracious me, that is a contrary experience. The USA embassy is surrounded by a tall steel fence with a bullet proof guard house replete with metal detector and men with guns, who, although very polite, refused to let me in. Apparently it is the consulate, not the embassy, that deals with matters of the peasantry, and it turns out they are not the same thing. Feeling slightly miffed – Er what’s wrong with me? Why am I not allowed to join the embassy party? It’s because I’m unwashed isn’t it? I was robbed you know! – I headed off to the British embassy. Do you know what they did there? They welcomed me in; made me a cup of tea (!); let me use the phone to call the UK; looked up the phone number for me too; let me use their computers; and gave me suggestions for where to watch the rugby. Bloody angels they were.
To be fair, the US embassies probably receive more death threats around the world, than all the other embassies put together. Perhaps they should reconsider their public image …make a few cups of tea.
With all the wheels set in motion; everything cancelled that needed to be cancelled; and a quick prayer offered up to the gods of Western Union and lovely family members, I set out to explore Vienna in a laid back, I’m-stranded-here-for-a-few-days-let’s-not-spend-too-much-money type of way.
What a wonderful place to be stranded for a few days! Vienna was voted second best city to live in the world (Vancouver got first place which confused me a little because… well … because it’s cold), and it really is lovely. For a start it’s marginally less expensive than the rest of Western Europe, it has a great music scene, and apparently has a thriving coffee house/bar/club life going on – I wouldn’t know because I am conserving my Euros, but wow have I seen a lot of happy drunks! Oh and it’s gorgeous to look at.
The day after my day of sorting crap out – that should be an official reason for having time off work: “Won’t be in on Wednesday chief, having a SCO day” – I decided to do some sight seeing, obviously I managed to do it completely the wrong way round. I went to the Wiesenfest during the day when the fairgrounds were near empty and a bit creepy, and ended up exploring the palace gardens and museum quarter in the dark…again. I could write Nocturnal Europe, a Travel Guide for Insomniacs. Oh, actually I really should have done that, I should have scoped out every 24 hour place in the continent. Damn it, why do the genius ideas come after the event?
Vienna sells public transport tickets for periods of 24, 48, and 72 hours (price ranging between 7 and 17 Euros) that entitle you to travel on any tram, bus or train in the network, which is fantastic. I took the train to Prater to explore the festival grounds. Officially the festival runs from 11:30-6pm, but at noon it was eerily quiet, rides were running with only one or two people on them, the grounds were largely empty on a grey, cold day so the noises of the many ghost rides reached far and wide. With all the whirring gears and cogs around me it did feel like I was a tiny animal trapped in a mechanical behemoth. An hour later though and it was filling up, looking far more lively, and then I found the beer hall area which was unsurprisingly, warm, busy and not remotely creepy. Wiesenfest is the Austrian version of Oktoberfest and has a similar ethos of booze, food, costumes, music and merriment. It’s a fool-proof method for a successful festival.
After admiring some lederhosen, and listening to oompah-pah bands, I went to Nauschmarkt, where the market traders foist free tastings of nuts, olives, cheese, salami, dried hibiscus flowers on passers-by. Now that the cold weather has come in you also find stalls on street corners selling roast chestnuts, hot chips and potato cakes… sadly they don’t give out free samples.
I accepted tastings and politely refused to buy anything in tried and tested tourist fashion, i.e. repeatedly saying “no thank you” in the appropriate language with a shoulder shrug and a forlorn smile, “I’m sorry, I’m a poor traveller, otherwise I’d buy everything on your stall, no really I would.”
From there I took the train to Stephensplatz, a square in the centre of Vienna, home of the very large and ornate St Stephen’s church. With my unerring sense of timing I ascended from the subway and walked straight into a nationalist, political rally. Walking around what must have been a couple of thousand people who were intently focused on listening, and a couple of hundred behind barriers who were loudly protesting – and making a party of it, had a DJ and all sorts – I couldn’t help feeling something was a little off. The same sense of unease that reading 1984 will give you. I approached two friendly looking girls who explained to me that the man speaking was running such a right wing platform that he was considered a fascist by his non-supporters. He’s garnered more support than expected because he’s been able to use the refugee crisis in his manifesto. The elections are being held today, and you can feel the tension in Vienna as people await the result.
Austria so far is the one place where I have seen large amounts of refugees. Mostly I see families in the train station waiting for the next stage. I went over to Salzburg today, and there they have red cross tents set up at the train station, huge police presence, and scores of people being escorted in long lines to who knows where. Any dark skinned person getting off a train is automatically stopped by police to check their papers. The police don’t seem antagonistic, but they are big and intimidating, and it must leave people reeling who just a short time ago were living normal lives, and now have no homes, no security, either being herded like cattle, or not knowing where to go, and no idea what the future holds for them.
Salzburg was gorgeous by the way. Quiet because it was Sunday and quite a few things were closed, but absolutely stunning and I managed to walk into another festival in a plaza where they were giving out free tastings of cheese, crisps, schnapps and chocolate – score! That’s my sense of timing again, having a good day.