Sunday, May 15, 2016

Into the heart of Europe

I continued my peregrinations through central Europe as I trundled in a 'fast train' along the Danube to arrive in Bratislava, a neat city that maintains a quiet charm without trying too hard to compete with Vienna. In the current age of the Internet, Facebook and selfies, much of the world has been discovered. 'Hidden treasure' is quickly becoming an oxymoron. Bratislava is a compromise by being partly hidden and partly a treasure.
Low costs, prevalence of English, a lot of history centered around the old town and friendly people make it one of the more complete off beat destinations. Also it has the 'where?' factor if you want to be the guy who talks about obscure destinations rather than London, Paris and Rome.

My first experience of the city was a Spring Festival that had a live bad playing. Attending a concert in a language I don't understand was a novel experience. Though the lead singer did give the standard instructions in English. "Put your hands in the air." Or, "make some noise." And every time he yelled Bratislava, you shout "yeah!!!". It's quite simple really. Music is a universal language after all. And so are blond jokes apparently. I was told that blond jokes are quite common in Slovakia. Though I'm not sure how they are funny if half the population is blond.

While in Bratislava, I'd like to file another incident another the 'Stranger Kindness' section. I was at the ticket machine at a bus stop when I realized that I didn't have any coins to use in the machine. So I approached this pretty lady to ask for change. Instead she bought me the ticket! Before I could thank her, bus 205 arrived and the lady was gone. I was left, ticket in hand, pondering the kindness of people. I realized that you can experience the kindness of others only when you are in need. You have to be in a vulnerable place so as to be open to receive. And for me, learning to receive teaches me to give because the next time you are in a position to give, you will be able to empathize with the one who is receiving. I hope to be able to pay this kindness forward some time during my travels.

Another top 25 destination in Europe according to Lonely Planet is Vienna, the former capital of the powerful Hapsburg empire. Vienna is famous for palaces, coffee houses and classical music. I did enjoy lingering around a coffee shop one afternoon as I read the New York times. Was it in places like these where intellectuals met to philosophize and argue about life? Are we missing out on something with the demise of idle conversations in coffee shops and pubs? Now we just abuse each other on the comments section of various websites. With this depressing thought, I headed into the warm sun bathed streets. As I wandered the streets idly, I was approached by a lady who asked me if I'd put on headphones and dance to some EDM for 30 seconds on the streets of Vienna. I gathered through a mix of German and English that they were making a promotional video for some music festival. I got a lot of bemused/admiring stares from passers by. And maybe if I got my moves right, I'll have my 5 seconds of fame in Austria.

Another must do in Vienna is to attend a classical music performance. I attended part of an Opera in the famous Vienna Opera House. Don't be put off by the cost or formal clothing you'd expect at a fancy opera. You can get standing room tickets for 4 euros and you can be in t-shirt and jeans. Thanks to Americans for always saving the day by dressing in casuals and helping me blend in. The Opera was a spectacular performance. The music was beautiful, the stage play elaborate and the ambiance majestic. It was totally worth the aching feet and exposure to strange German singing. I think German is best suited for heavy metal. The Opera gives a taste of the life of the Viennese high society.

Heading off the beaten path, I arrived in Ruzomberok, beautifully nestled among the Tatra and Fatra mountains. While the town itself is a drab affair, the surrounding mountains more than make up for the eye sore that is the Soviet style box buildings. The hiking was wonderful with gorgeous views of the mountains and tiny villages in the valleys. But the highlight was a geography class at a local middle school. I was the guest speaker for the day and had to talk about India. Props to me that no one fell asleep. After all, I wouldn't blame you if you had mistaken my TA classes at UMN for sleep therapy sessions. And I even had an autograph session with the kids after the class. I guess being the only foreign tourist (ever?) in the town made me a celebrity. I should have practiced writing my name legibly. Or maybe they might assume that I wrote my name in some exotic Indian language. I hope the kids learned something that morning. But for me, having an audience of wide eyed kids definitely made my day.

A couple of things that I have realized on my travels so far. First, learn at least two words in the language of the play you are visiting. Hello and thank you. This is especially true in smaller countries because it shows that you care about their culture. In every country I have visited, this has helped me get friendlier service and a smile on many occasions. Some languages are harder than others. But two words, even in Hungarian, shouldn't tax your mental faculties too much.

Second, how to balance photography with experiences. Photography is a lot about timing and patience with light, composition, angle, etc. But I have learned not to get carried away and not to make it the sole purpose of my journey. Maybe someday I'll be a photographer. But today, I'm a traveler. So I take a picture or two and put my camera away. After the picture, don't move on. Linger. Look. Imagine. So many people point, shoot and leave. I say point, shoot and stay. And I try to ensure that my days are not planned around photography, but rather around experiences and people. Europe is a beautiful continent and you don't need to try too hard to get great pictures. And for those who've asked, I use a Canon SX50 camera. It's nothing fancy, but gets the job done

Thanks to Andrea for hosting me in Bratislava and Pavol for hosting me in Ruzomberok.

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