Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Heinrichsbrunn, Austria to Bratislavia, Slovakia: Tales of the Danube

When I left McDonald's after blogging, it was sunny. Trend: blogging at McDonald's makes the weather better. Maybe Ronald, like my University's president (also named Ronald!!!) has a weather machine in the basement!? Anyone know anybody else named Ronald who can control the weather? It's for science.


With the sun also came a plethora of other tourists. I don't know where they'd been hiding the past few days, but suddenly, I wasn't alone. I stopped to set up my bike as a drying rack and at least 10 other tourists passed me. Every picnic table seemed occupied by a pair of bikes and a couple eating lunch or taking a nap. It was glorious.


Typical cycle rack along the Danube: occupied.

A much needed drying of socks, shoes, and gloves.

Also nobody spoke English.

I tried to stop at a riverside city to pick up a new chain, as my pedalstroke had been feeling... unhappy, to say the least. But, it was Sunday, so naturally everything was closed. Then I was going to keep going... but there was a storm passing by in front of me. I was sick of being wet, so I took a nap at a park...

"Oh, look at that storm cell passing by in front of me..."

...then tried to leave, but another storm cell appeared, so I thought... time to eat schnitzel!

Menu options for the day. Much time was spent on Google translate before the waitress just gave me an English menu...

Pancake soup.

View from the restuarant.

Soup, schnitzel, and cake for 7.90 Euro, plus a beer and a coffee – not bad. After eating, I was finally able to continue. Also the waitress was delightful. A friend told me Austrains were the “jolly German speakers,” and he was right. It wasn't just the waitress: most of the people who spoke to me were very happy about it, even though I had no idea what they were saying.

I continued down the river until reaching my goal for the night, 80 km from Vienna, where I had a Warmshowers stay set up the next night. This took me well into the night, but it was a nice bike path the whole way, so I didn't mind. I found a spot in an apple orchard, got a surprise fireworks show, and...

What parking spots are really for...

Castle sunset. Typical Austria...

...where was my helmet?

The next morning I would discovered it about 2 km back where I'd left it on a picnic table while searching my map for places to sleep. Such is the life of a tired cyclist.

The next day was fairly uneventful. The weather cooperated again and I made it to Vienna and found a new chain.

History is very Lord of the Rings here... or Game of Thrones, take your pick.

Also I raced a barge and won. I think. It might have passed me while I was asleep.

My host that night, and my first indoor stay since leaving Couchsurfing with Liviu in Munich on Thursday, was Samuel.

Samuel was awesome. He's a bicycle courier in Vienna, he knows how to decorate a flat, he takes tours every summer (since he has those since he's a student), and he surrounds himself with awesome people.

He can also pose like a boss. Secretly a male model?

One of those people was Webhe, a Syrian refugee, who I promptly and inadvertently began interviewing. I didn't intend it to be an interview, I just had a lot of questions, and every time I apologized profusely for asking so many questions, he said he didn't mind. He only spoke Arabic and German though, so Samuel had to translate.

This will be a vast simplification of a two-hour long conversation: Webhe didn't want to leave Syria, but his family was afraid for him. He's drafting age (as in, military draft) and naturally, his family didn't want him to go fight in a war they didn't believe in. So he left – first south to Lebanon, then a flight to Turkey, one of those terrifying boats for 15 but with 50 people to Greece, then bus, tuk-tuk, and whatever else it took to get to Austria (you can watch a video of another refugee's journey here. He likes to cook, so he has an interview to be a sous-chef at a restaurant next week, for which I wished him luck.

The thing that struck me the most about Webhe was his humbleness and humanity. He considered himself just another guy. He wanted to go back to Syria because it was his home – there was nothing specific he would cite besides his family and the general feeling of belonging that he missed the most. The first thing he wants to do when he gets back is something to help other people rebuild – open a restaurant maybe – and the thing he wishes everybody knew about him and the refugee crisis is that they are people, not headlines. All the refugees have families and homes and yes, a story to tell, but they are just people, like the rest of us, who want to go home, like the rest of us. I felt honored to get to know him; humiliated that I had, if only subconsciously, not thought about Syrian refugees as unique individuals but as numbers in a newspaper; and privileged that I could go back to where I was from anytime I wanted and not fear for my life.

Did I mention it was humbling?

We talked a lot about other things to, but that was the most striking part. After a while another Warmshowers guest joined us, Michael, and as most of the conversation was in English, Webhe left for his room. Michael, Samuel and I geeked out about cycle touring and drank absinthe (ahem) and talked about leaving behind women we loved.

Celebrating new friends by drinking the local alcohol: how it's done.

The next morning I slept in a little more than intended – I had some frequent flier miles due to expire, so I booked a hotel in the next town over, Bratislava, for free. I would normally never stay in a hotel if I have a choice, but this was use-it-or-lose it, and it was free, so... I wanted to get there early and use it as much as possible! Of course, conversation took over at breakfast (how many cyclists does it take to eat a bakery's worth of bread...) and I had a chain to replace so I didn't get going until about 11. I noticed when replacing the chain that my back brake pads needed to be replaced (again...), so I stopped by a shop to pick up some more of those, then finally had a beautiful ride out of Vienna, along the Donauinsel (a long, skinny island in the middle of the Danube that's basically a giant park with bike paths everywhere and no cars), and along the Danube to Bratislava, in Slovakia.

Left to right: Me, Webhe, Samuel, Michael.

Biking through Vienna.

Dead brake pads in the foreground, shiny new chain in the background.

Austria be like, "Where you wanna stealth camp bro?"

I'm in Slovakia.

This excites me.

Slovakia is the first country of the trip I didn't really learn about in history class, whose language I didn't have the ability to learn in school, whose culture is rarely featured in American media... I've already learned so much about other places I've never been before and other people I've never met before, but this starts the part of the trip where I learn about places and people comparatively few others know about. I know a lot of people who have been to England, France, Germany, etc... I know one person who has been to Slovakia.

The well-dressed gentleman lives in Slovakia, too!

My favorite new game: What is this an ad for?

Riding through Bratislava.

So. Here I sit in a hotel room in Bratislava. I invited Michael to join me, actually, since we are headed the same direction, but he got into Bratislava a bit late and the hotel is a bit out of town. I hope to meet him again. But tomorrow, I'll continue down the Danube, with the goal of making it to Budapest on Friday, and then it's only about a week to my WWOOF in Ukraine!


1 comment:

  1. So happy for your enriching experiences. Webhe's story is humbling and enlightening. What fun to have 3 other guys to get to know in Vienna. And, how cool to be in Slovakia, the first country of the trip that you didn't really learn about in history class.

    Love you, Mom