Nashville – June, 1996
I planned everything in advance. Or so I thought. I bought my round-trip plane ticket three months in advance. I "surfed The Web" and researched whatever I could find regarding my destination cities and countries. I bought renter’s insurance for the apartment, a video camera, a new suit for the wedding. For me, this was serious preparation.
My friend Charlotte gave me a ride to the airport. My brother Don had offered, but Charlotte really wanted an excuse to get off work, so she won the "honor" of driving me to the airport. I’m sure it was a thrill for her. She gave me all sorts of motherly advice along the way. She would have called it simple advice, but to me it sounded like motherly advice. She’s a good friend, so I let her get away with it.
After I checked my baggage with the woman at the ticket counter, we hugged good-bye. Charlotte and I, that is. I wanted to hug the ticket woman. She was gorgeous. But something told me she wouldn’t go for it. As Charlotte and I hugged, I wanted to sneak in a kiss, just in case my plane blew up and it was the last chance I had for that sort of thing, but she didn’t let me. I think she and the baggage check woman were conspiring against me. Just a theory. Probably nothing to it. But still, you’ve got to wonder.
In The Air
On the flight from Atlanta to Vienna, I sat next to a 6’5" teenage hillbilly chatterbox named Chip. Just my luck. An 8-hour flight ahead of me, and I’ve got to sit next to this guy. Making matters worse, he was a Christian missionary. I cannot stand Christian missionaries. Can’t stand religion itself, actually.
His group was on its way to Minsk, Belarus, to preach the gospel, or whatever it is they do. Chip kept referring to his trip as a "business trip." I don’t know who he thought he was fooling. Himself, I guess, like religious missionaries everywhere.
When I told him I don’t believe in religion and would greatly appreciate it if he didn’t try to "recruit" me, he was good enough to stop evangelizing. He didn’t stop talking, he merely contented himself with constant non-religious conversation.
He loved roller coasters. He mentioned this several times. I don’t know why. "Have you ever been on a roller coaster?" he asked. "Yes, I have," I replied. "What’s the biggest one y’ever been on?" "Probably the Giant Dipper … in Santa Cruz. Northern California," I replied. He didn’t seem familiar with that one, so I added, "Or maybe one of the ones at Magic Mountain in Southern California. I don’t really know." Or care, I thought. Again, he shook his head. He mentioned a roller coaster in Florida I’d never heard of. It was my turn to shake my head.
It was a fascinating conversation all the way to Vienna.
In case you didn’t know, the Vienna airport is nowhere near the city itself. All I saw of Vienna was from the air. It looked like a wonderful town. I’ll have to visit someday. At least I got some video footage of the Austrian Alps on the way in.
Once disembarked at the Vienna airport, I voluntarily walked through the "Customs: Items to Declare" checkpoint. I told the customs agent I didn’t know if I needed to be there. He was busy with someone else, so he quickly asked if everything in my possession was mine and if I intended to sell any of it. When I said it was mine, and I didn’t intend to sell it, he waved me off impatiently, almost angrily. "Go. Go! "
Doug, Jana and Jana’s father, Milan, met me at the gate. I had spoken to Jana on the phone once or twice and had seen a couple of photos, but it was the first time I’d actually met her in person.
She kissed me, of course. Women like to do that when they meet me. It’s just my animal magnetism, I guess. The fact that I was in Europe now and it was customary for everyone to kiss everyone never entered my mind.
When we got outside I noticed how unseasonably cool it was. As Milan and I stood waiting for Doug and Jana to return from the bathroom, Milan taught me my first Slovak word: Zima.
"No thanks," I replied. "I never drink before noon."
He shook his head, not knowing what the hell I was talking about. He didn’t speak a word of English, so he demonstrated the meaning of "zima" by folding his arms across his chest and shivering. Then I understood. It was a bonding, learning experience. For me, anyway. I’m sure Milan just figured I was an idiot.
Once settled in at Jana’s parents’ house, Doug and I took the train to downtown Bratislava. Out on the street, I was impressed with the beautiful women. They were white, with some Nordic looks here, gypsy looks there, and Mediterranean looks over there. Very sexy, Earthy-looking. I wanted to take one home with me, or at least on the rest of my European trip. I later told Jana that I had thought Slovak women all looked like Martina Navratilova. I was wrong.
After she finished up some final wedding preparations, Jana met us at Bratislava Castle. At the castle and needing directions or whatever (I can’t remember what), Doug and I found a couple of women on a bench. Doug asked if they spoke English. The one who was awake replied, "We are English," as if we should be impressed. I almost replied, "Well, we’ll try and converse anyway." But I held my tongue.
At the castle gift shop, I managed to find some souvenirs. Well, a spoon. The spoon was for my sister. I don’t know why she collects spoons. Ask her.
Over the past two days, I had gotten a total of 6 hours sleep. The night before I left Nashville I got about four hours. That night around 2:30, I had awakened in a sweat because the air-conditioning was broken and it was probably 85 degrees with 85 percent humidity outside. I didn’t sleep for the rest of the night. I then got a "whole 2 hours" of sleep (if that) on the flight from Atlanta to Vienna. Then I lost seven hours due to the time zone change. A 15 minute nap in an actual bed at Jana’s parents’ house helped somewhat.
Thanks to Jana, her father Milan, her mother Ludmilla, her brother Milan, and her aunt Myca (which is the same name as my cat, by the way) I soon expanded my Slovak vocabulary beyond "zima." Don’t worry, it’s a short list:
Hello = "dobry den" (same as Russian, actually, and literally means “good day”) or "ahoj" (familiar; pronounced "ahoy" as in “Ahoy, matey!”); good-bye = "ciao" (actually Italian, of course) or "ahoj" again; yes = "ano"; no = "nie" (pronounced "nyeh"); thank you = "dakujem" (pronounced "dyahkuyem", or something like that); and = "á"; please or you’re welcome = "prosim"; beer = "pivo"; cognac = "cognac"; enough/done = "dost" (pronounced “doast”).
Doug and Jana’s wedding – my main reason for being there, by the way – went fairly quickly. I was one of the "witnesses." They don’t seem to have a Best Man and Maid of Honor there. Jana’s brother ("brat" in Slovak) Milan was the other witness.
There was no rehearsal, though there probably should have been, since I had no idea what to do. I decided early on to just follow Milan’s lead. Throughout the ceremony, he and I stood like statues behind Jana and Doug (a.k.a. "Janka á Douginko"). Just making sure they didn’t run, I guess.
The priest crossed himself a lot during the ceremony, and everyone in attendance was supposed to follow his lead. I hesitated a moment the first time this happened. Remember, I don’t believe in religion. The way I see it, it’s the worst thing ever invented. And crossing oneself has always been particularly abhorrent to me.
I ended up crossing myself right on cue, though, if only halfheartedly, just for appearances’ sake. I didn’t want to make a political statement at Doug’s wedding. Mighty considerate of me, eh?
A bunch of people from a Hungarian/American friendship society that Doug corresponds with were in attendance. It ended up being a fairly large crowd. At the time, I thought a good portion of the crowd was just curious tourists or locals. But most everyone there was actually invited. I had no idea Doug and Jana had so many friends.
After the wedding, there were lots of pictures. I was then enlisted as the amateur video cameraman. I didn’t do a very good job, but it was better than nothing. My main task, as given to me by Milan senior, was to film a billboard outside of Bratislava that said, in Slovak: "Do you know what you’re getting into?"
The reception was held in a rented hall several miles outside of town. There was a lot of eating, drinking, dancing and singing. We got a lot of it on videotape, which Doug later decided was, for the most part, unfit for public consumption. Thanks to his editing, memorable scenes of my dancing may never see the light of day. It’s a shame, really. I’m one hell of a dancer.
The next day, Jana, Doug, Milan Jr. and I went to an old 12th Century castle ruin called Pajstun (pronounced "py-shtoon"). It was very cool (as in "interesting," not zima).
We then went to another castle (not so much a ruin) also in the area. Access to the top of this one was limited due to someone filming a movie or something, so we just walked around its perimeter. It was located at the confluence of the Morava and Danube ("Dunaj" in Slovak, pronounced "doon-I") rivers.
Earlier, I had said that some of the women of Bratislava have a "gypsy look." Turns out I was wrong again. Gypsies are actually dark and, presumably, of Indian descent. Some even look like Australian Aborigines. And from what I’ve seen of gypsies, they are generally unattractive, sleazy-looking people. Sorry to be so harsh, but the ones I saw just gave me the creeps.
Jana’s father drove us from Bratislava to Budapest, Hungary (about a four-hour drive), dropped us off, and picked us up the next day. In Budapest, every single woman is beautiful! Well, okay, maybe just the ones Milan Jr. and I noticed. I would definitely like to go back there. But there are so many places I want to go, I may never get back.
Doug’s friend Klara and her boyfriend Istvan, who had attended the wedding and reception, took us to lunch at their favorite vegetarian restaurant. We then walked the length of Margaret Island, which sits in the middle of the Danube ("Duna," locally) River. We then got lost – although Doug insisted otherwise – and wandered through some slums – with Tina Turner concert posters everywhere – until we found our starting point again. From there, we walked up to Budapest Castle (or whatever it’s called). We were going to take the tram, but the line was too long.
My fellow hikers checked with me to see how my back was doing (due to recent problems). When I said I was fine, we scaled the castle walls! Well, okay, not really. It just felt like it. We climbed up a steep and winding trail into the castle.
I only learned two Hungarian (Magyar) words: " Kuszunum" (pronounced "kuh-suh-nuhm", meaning "thank you.") The other word was "híd" (pronounced "heed"), meaning "bridge." The Hungarian language is nothing like Slovak.
After returning from Budapest and before leaving Bratislava, I was able to see the professionally-done wedding video. I think the cameraman was in love with Jana’s cousin Sylvia. He spent quite a bit of footage on her. Otherwise, the video was great.
When it came time to leave, Jana’s mother Ludmilla kissed me goodbye and said "our door is always open to you." Everyone who was in the car for the Budapest trip then piled in and drove me to the train station for my trip to Prague. Once the train finally arrived, half an hour late at 1:15am, we said goodbye and I took my seat on the train.
An argument (in English) broke out in the compartment behind me. Some young guy was shouting: "I’m telling you, there aren’t any seat assignments! You just sit wherever you want!" My cabinmates and I smiled at each other. I don’t know if they spoke English, but you didn’t have to.
Doug then shouted at me through the window: "Bill, get your things!" Aloud, I mumbled "Why." But I wasted no time in complying. For all I knew, I was on the wrong train.
Milan ran in and grabbed two of my bags. As we all ran several car-lengths down the boarding platform, Doug explained that they had arranged to get me into a sleeper car. It wasn’t until I was already running that I realized this was the first time in several months that I had run (again, because of my back).
The sleeper car manager (or whatever he’s called) put me in with a young woman. This surprised me, but I didn’t complain. She smiled, and went right back to sleep. Yes, my "animal magnetism" at work once again.
En route to Prague
The few times that my cabinmate awoke (usually when I was either opening or closing the window) I spoke pidgin English to her. When she did reply, it was also in pidgin English.
I didn’t sleep at all for fear of oversleeping and missing my stop. That fear turned out to be unwarranted, for when we arrived in Prague ("Praha" locally), the sleeper car manager (or whatever) came in and said, "Good morning. We will be arriving in Prague in five minutes."
As the young woman awoke and gathered her things, I attempted to speak in complete sentences to her. It was then that I learned she had been on the train since Budapest, was originally from San Francisco, and spoke perfect English. I invited her to breakfast, but she made an excuse and we parted company. Bitch.
With all my bags in tow, I spent the next several hours wandering all over Prague (mostly by foot, but also by subway, bus and trolley). I found a room at a place called the Hotel Kafka. It was more expensive than a youth hostel (which were all full), but not bad at $42. I figured I could "splurge," since most of my food and lodging had so far been free, courtesy of Jana’s parents.
I saw a good portion of Prague that day, although I didn’t set foot in any castles or museums, which, of course, I now regret. My guidebook said that Czechs are "a warm and friendly people." The ones I met were not, particularly.
A cab driver was friendly enough. I had flagged him down after wandering around on foot until my feet were killing me. I think he appreciated the fact that I used pretty much every one of my Slovak (very similar to Czech) words in a sentence. He had a postcard of a naked girl on the dashboard, at which I pointed and said "Dobré" (good).
When he took me on a suspiciously circuitous route to the hotel, I thought maybe he was taking me for a ride, literally. But as I watched him drive (in my foot travels, I had become fairly familiar with the area) I realized it was the one-way streets and various construction detours determining our route, not the driver’s greed.
Since I spent more time in Bratislava than expected, I spent only one night each in Prague and Berlin. In between Berlin and Amsterdam I would spend the night on the train.
I didn’t go out to a pub while in Prague. After Milan and I had gotten drunk and stayed up ’til dawn in Budapest (hey, there was free wine and beer in the fridge, what were we supposed to do?) I just wasn’t in the mood. Besides, my feet were sore, and I was tired of walking around.
I didn’t take any video or still pictures in Prague (except in the hotel room, for some stupid reason). I was tired of doing the "tourist thing." Besides, in some of the areas I wandered through I didn’t feel comfortable whipping out the old camcorder and marking myself as a prime robbery victim.
I wandered until finding Kurfurstendamm ("Ku’damm," locally), the famous tourist street. I sat at an outdoor table in the main square near Kurfurstendamm Strasse and Zoo Station. I drank German beer (Schultheiss) and smoked French cigarettes (Gauloises). Next to me, two men spoke English in a passionate discussion of chemistry and physics. I was so happy to hear English being spoken, I wanted to join in. In front of and around my table were young people (punks mostly, but not all) rollerblading, skateboarding, playing hacky-sack, and just hanging out and smoking cigarettes.
There are actually a few black people in Berlin, unlike Prague, Bratislava and Budapest. Descendants of American military men, I guess. Most of the black men had white girlfriends.
That night sometime past midnight, I went to a disco called Big Eden. A pamphlet claimed that admittance was free and beers were the equivalent of $5. The sign out front said "frei" (free) something or other.
At the bar I ordered a Heineken from the knockout blonde bartender. She said something to me in German. I said "Sprechen sie English?" She said "Ten Deutschemarks [the equivalent of $7 or $8], please."
When I flashed what I thought was a "free beer" ticket I had received at the entrance, she explained that it was no such thing. "What is it then?" I said irritably. "Just a ticket," she said happily.
I took the U-Bahn back to the hotel. That was the plan, anyway. When it stopped (for the night) one stop shy of my stop, I was forced to figure out how to get back to the hotel.
I wandered down some darkened street in the middle of the night, not really sure where I was. It kept me alert, I’ll tell you. When I came upon a small, utterly-dark park, I was doubly alert to even the slightest sound. But I made it back to the hotel in one piece, though I did approach it from the opposite direction I had thought I would.
I spent the next morning lost on the S-Bahn (elevated train), trying to get back to the Berlin-Lichtenberg station, where I had arrived in Berlin. I needed to buy a ticket to Amsterdam and thought that this might be the place where I had to buy it.
When I reached the station, I couldn’t find the place where I had disembarked after arriving from Prague. There was nothing there even closely resembling the train station I had arrived in. Hell if I know! So I got back on the S-Bahn and rode all over town before finally returning to the more familiar Zoo Station. There, I bought a ticket to Amsterdam (or so I thought), got a locker, threw everything in that would fit, and returned east on the S-Bahn to Alexanderplatz.
There wasn’t room in the locker for one of my bags, so I just carried it everywhere I went. I’d been doing that throughout Europe, anyway. I’d gotten used to it.
Getting off at the Alexanderplatz station, I found the Unter den Linden. It’s a major, Old Berlin street with many landmarks, museums, libraries, universities, etc. I walked all over the area. Had I known it was so noteworthy, I would have brought a camera! Oh well.
After touring the Unter den Linden and Alexanderplatz, I still had nine hours to kill. I probably should have spent some time in museums and whatnot, but, again, I didn’t.
Not sure what to do next, I ended up taking the U-Bahn (or maybe the S-Bahn, I can’t remember) to a part of town called Charlottenburg. There was an open-air bazaar several blocks long. I wandered up and down its length, twice.
Four more hours to kill and I found myself back at the Zoo Station. The scum of society who hang out in the train station (gypsies, punks, and foreign tourists like myself) really got on my nerves after a while.
While sitting on the floor of the Zoo Station, watching the Olympics on the bigscreen TV (and enduring the same three or four commercials every ten minutes) I witnessed the end result of a pick-pocket. A young white girl was waving a wallet in the air in front of her girlfriends as they made their way toward the exit. I knew she had stolen it from the way her friends glanced guiltily in all directions and tried to get the thief to put the wallet away.
A couple of times I got up to use the public bathrooms, but there was always a long, unmoving line. In line, I was surrounded by gypsies pretending to also be in line so they could pick my pockets. I kept my wallet and passport in my front pockets. Even so, I was constantly checking to make sure they were still there. When you’re a gypsy and you pick pockets for a living, front pockets are probably not much more difficult than back pockets. I ended up waiting and using the bathroom on the train. Aren’t you glad I’m telling you about my bathroom habits?
When the Amsterdam train finally arrived and I tried to board the sleeper car, the cabinmaster (or whatever he’s called) said my ticket was for the wrong day. I was worried because there was some confusion earlier when I bought the ticket. I had taken great pains at the ticket counter to verify that my ticket was for the right day. I was assured that it was, though the ticket woman did not speak English very well. I wish I was fluent in all languages!
The cabinmaster refused to speak English, in spite of the fact that five years of English study is required in Germany. Luckily, a young German-speaking couple with tickets to the same train for the same day as me verified that both of our tickets were for the right day and train.
When I boarded the train and found my cabin, the semi-conductor came back and asked for my ticket. When I gave it to him, he kept repeating: "Nein, nein! Reservation! Reservation!" All I could do was point at my ticket and keep saying: "Ja, ja! Reservation! Reservation!"
Several times I tried to convince him to speak English, even if he couldn’t. He finally waved me off and left me alone in my cabin. I thought that was the end of it. It wasn’t.
Some time in the middle of the night, I was awakened by a loud rapping on the door. A large, muscle-bound security guard and the conductor himself were there, along with the cabinmaster, to tell me that my ticket was no good.
Luckily, the security guard spoke English. Not politely, but at least we could converse. Accusingly, he said, "This is not your ticket." I thought he was implying I had stolen it, but he simply meant that it was not a complete ticket. It was a ticket without a reservation. In any other civilized country, your ticket is your reservation. Not so in Germany.
The guard then said, "So you have no money."
"I’ve got money!" I said. "I’ve got American traveler’s checks, credit cards, American cash. What do you want?!"
Meanwhile, the train was slowing down. They spoke amongst themselves and finally agreed to take my traveler’s checks. As I was signing the checks, the security guard said, "We will be back in a moment."
The train made an unscheduled stop, done for my benefit, I’m sure, so they could throw me off the train. The train then started back up and the three men returned to take my checks.
As he exited my cabin, the security guard smiled and said, "Have a good night." I glared at him and shut the door.
I ended up having to pay an additional $90 just to stay on the train! I was glad they took traveler’s checks so I had a record of the transaction.
Before reaching Amsterdam, the new (Dutch) conductor, a woman, demanded more money. Obviously, the ticket I had bought at the train station was absolutely worthless. At least she spoke English.
She wanted Dutch gilders. I didn’t have any Dutch gilders. With my scrape with the Germans fresh in my mind, I asked: "Do you take American traveler’s checks?"
"No," she shook her head.
Well, thank God, I thought. I dug into my wallet and pulled out a $100 bill. She said, "I cannot accept $100 bills. Do you have any Deutschemarks?"
Well, sh*t! I thought. I didn’t have any Dutch gilders, and I was pretty sure I didn’t have more than a few Deutschemarks.
"What now?" I said to her. She shrugged.
I dug into my wallet again. Luckily, I found a 50DM note. I gave her that, shook my head, and laughed in relief. She smiled thinly, and gave me a few gilders worth of change.
[When I returned to Nashville, I called the bank and had them check into this ticket fiasco. They informed me that a credit check had been done on my credit card at Berlin’s Zoo Station, but nothing was actually ever charged. A month later, when the charge mysteriously showed up on my statement, I requested and filled out a refund request, which I ended up never sending in.]
By the time I got to Amsterdam and checked my luggage into a locker at the airport, I only had a few hours to spend checking out Amsterdam. There was enough time to see the canals, the prostitutes in the windows (extremely ugly women, by the way), buy a t-shirt, and have lunch. I looked for trinkets for friends, but didn’t find any. I ended up not even buying postcards since I would be home before they could be delivered.
Security was very tight getting out of the Amsterdam airport. At Delta’s Atlanta-bound ticket counter, there were security guards with machine guns! They ran my bags through the x-ray machine, and an attractive security woman then pulled me aside and asked me the standard questions. I answered all her questions (throwing in the occasional flirtatious glance, of course, out of habit), and she eventually let me board.
It was while waiting to board that I heard the news of the Atlanta Olympic park bombing, which explained the machine guns.
When we landed in Atlanta, several people applauded. No kidding! I guess they were infrequent flyers. In the terminal, everyone had to go through customs, of course. I never was strip-searched, though. Damn!
Don picked me up at the Nashville airport. We stopped by his house to pick up my cat, Myca. Back at my apartment, Myca re-acquainted himself with things. Before leaving home, I had unplugged everything but the refrigerator. I plugged it all back in and went about the task of getting back to normal. THE END (finally!)