Friday, January 1, 2010

My trip home from Ukraine

I left Ukraine for the last time on Dec. 17. I stopped in Austria for five days to visit my Ukrainian friend who is studying there. This is that account.

Thursday, night, 17: Natasha lives in a nun's abbey (or something like that). Nuns live on the third floor and the owner rents the lower floors to students of Alpin Adria Klagenfurt University. Natasha told me that night: We have two choices, we’re going to go see some castles tomorrow and we can go by bus or we can ride bikes. RIDE BIKES!! I said, all excited because I haven't ridden a bike in a year and breathing in fresh air and feeling cement under tires sounded totally awesome. I forgot that it was winter.

Friday, 18: It started out great. I dressed… sort of warmly. If by warm you mean one layer, hat, gloves, no scarf. We borrowed Natasha's roommate's bike for me and headed out with a map and fierce determination. She hadn't been to some of these places, which was why the map. It was nippy out, but bearable. We found the first castle no problem after Natasha asked for directions, Maria Loretto. We rode along a river to get there, by a really pretty park covered in snow. This place was the most important. It's on a lake called Woerthesee and it was beautiful. The castle looked kind of like a big mansion and had huge sliding glass doors with "lounge" written on them. It was closed. No matter though! I was seeing Klagenfurt.

Then the plan was to see another site called "Schrot-Turm" up on a hill. On the way we passed, "Minumondus," an outdoor museum that exhibits miniature versions of the world's famous sights. The Eiffel tower, Sydney Opera house, and Taj Mahal for example. We stopped to visit it, but turns out that it's open April to October. We continued to follow the map and ended up on this scary high way with trucks speeding by, and no sidewalk. We rode for quite some distance and Natasha realized we should be on another road higher up to get to the castle. This meant a lot of backtracking trying to find a way up there. The temperature was dropping and we were getting colder and colder. At last, we decided to abandon this plan and go back home to cook pizza. On the way we stopped at a grocery store. I was glad. My thighs, nose, cheeks were burning. We bought juice, pizza, milk, and yogurt, then continued on. We rode along the longest road ever and by the time we got back, I could not feel my butt.

We ate supper, watched an episode of Modern family, rested, then at about 5:30 p.m., ventured back outside. This time I wore three layers and a scarf. We walked to the city center, to the Christmas market. Apparently, this is a popular thing in Austrian cities. So is Gluhwein. I love that stuff. It’s a hot spicy wine that tastes a little like hot apple cider, only alcoholic. It was the best thing ever. We walked around, looked at the stalls, took some pictures by the Klagenfurt symbol, a large statue of a dragon which was supposedly the first inhabitant of the town. When the people defeated the dragon, so the legend goes, they created this memorial to it. We stopped at the train station (because you have to walk through it to get from the center to her place) and bought tickets to Salzburg for the next day. Then we went home and fell into bed.

Saturday, 19: I woke up at 5:20 a.m. to shower and get the stuff together that I wanted to take with me to Salzburg. I went to find Natasha at 5:59 a.m. Her room is a floor above the guest rooms. What time is it? she mumbled when I whispered her name. One more minute… she said. I went back downstairs to get the sandwiches ready that we wanted to take with us. I got as far as getting out sausage, cheese and bread but wasn't sure which plates or silverware I was allowed to use. She emerged a few minutes later and we got lunch ready and had cereal for breakfast. Time somehow ran away from us and we ended up racing from the dorms about five minutes before the train was to leave at 6:40 a.m. We made the train with a minute to spare. We were determined that the following day, when we went to Vienna, we'd leave more time to get there.

It took us three hours to get to Salzburg. We arrived at 9:30 and headed out to see something interesting. Natasha's friend had told us to go to Mirabell platz (a square) so we walked from the station 20 minutes to the square. There was a Christmas market there and lots of stores lining narrow, Christmas light-bestrewn streets. We tried to find the house that is a museum to Mozart (it's his birthplace). We asked several people and were pointed in a general direction. At last, still lost, we asked another girl and she wasn't sure but pointed to the right. After a few minutes of walking, we asked again and were pointed back the way we’d come. We looked at the buildings carefully for signs, since everyone said you couldn’t miss it. When we’d arrived at the place where we’d asked that girl, we looked up and saw “MOZART” in big letters right above the intersection. Oh, we said, and laughed. We didn’t pay to go in because the billboard declared that we’d be able to see a film presentation, documents and old music by Mozart. Natasha didn’t want to pay 7 Euros to see some old documents. I wasn’t inclined either. We took a picture by the sign and kept walking.

We were a little hungry and wanted to find a place to sit and eat our sandwiches. We tried to find a reasonably priced restaurant or café where we could order something light. Eventually, because we were cold and wearing inappropriate footwear (my feet were soaked), we settled on a Japanese restaurant called “Jade.” We sat in the back, ordered coffee and Asian dumplings, and slyly ate our sandwiches. I felt silly, especially when the Austrian guys near us kept looking at us. The dumplings cost five Euros. There were six of them. We each ate three. That was a little less than a Euro per dumpling. I’m still hungry, Natasha said afterwards, grumpily. I agreed. We walked around some more. Took pictures by a huge golden ball. Weren’t sure what it was doing there but we took the time to scratch our names into the underbelly like people before us. Also saw an ice skating rink and statues to Mozart.

We spotted Hohenwerfen Fortress up on a hill and made our way there. It was a majestic looking castle with lots of stairs. We could have taken the vernicular, a transport system, to the top but did you know that Austria is EXPENSIVE? A Euro is not 8 to the dollar. Oh no. Not like the Ukrainian hryven to the dollar. The dang thing is worth more than a dollar. So we hoofed it. That was okay, the view along the way was also pretty cool. When we got there, we saw that it was 5 Euros to get in. We decided this would be our one splurge. It looked really cool. We walked up and up some more after we were technically inside the fortress of the castle. We found  the castle tours and tentatively asked if it cost extra. Nope, our ticket was enough. That was exciting news. We were given little walkie-talkies that could be programmed with the language of our choice and were led through different rooms. There was the hall with images of the emperors and leaders who helped lead the city and develop the fortress, and miniature models of each step of the fortress progress towards further strengthening.

We saw the “torture room” where implements of torture hung on the walls. Mostly they were manacles, and a big wheel, which was apparently dropped on parts of a person’s body. Also, the torture wasn’t carried out in the torture room. We were led to the top of the fortress and got a glorious view of the city of Salzburg (this was all while listening to British people talking about the history.) We were to look in different directions and listen to explanations about the far off buildings. Problem was, I could never figure out what the dignified guy on my mini-radio was referring to. Where to look? Where to look? That was by far the most amazing sight though.

After the tour finished, we walked through some other museums in the fortress, watched a video presentation of people making some of the models for the museum, and walked through a gift shop, where I bought a little map and explanations of the places where the movie, The Sound of Music was filmed. Some of the places were even the actual places where the original Von Trapp family had been. I explained to Natasha what this movie was about (she’d never heard of it), and how cool was it that I was in Austria, in Salzburg, where some of it had taken place!! We didn’t try to go to all those places but I thought it was a cool memento.

After we’d left the fortress, we decided that we’d seen all the most important stuff in Salzburg so we walked around a bit, taking more photos, stopped for a kebab, drank some hot gluhwein, went to a grocery store to buy supplies for the next day, and walked back to the train station to catch our train at 6:30 p.m. back to Klagenfurt.

Also, during the course of the day, Natasha had been in contact with her family and neighbor in Ukraine. Her neighbor has relatives in Vienna and suggested that Natasha call them. Natasha did, and let the relatives know that we’d be in Vienna on Sunday and Monday. They said that they’d meet us at the train station on Sunday. This was exciting. However, Natasha was unsure of the exact arrangements. Would they invite us to spend the night or did we need another place to sleep? Since I was leaving for the airport on Tuesday morning, we’d decided to stay in Vienna until then. Hostels are costly but that was our back up plan (cheap but still expensive when you’re a poor student and poor RPCV).

We got back to Klagenfurt at 10:30 p.m. and I was informed we’d be meeting friends at midnight and going to a club. I was game, you’re only in Austria once, right? So we spent a little time on the internet, ate something for supper, got pretty, and headed out. The club/ bar had good music and mixed drinks. Right there it was a step above some discos I’ve been to. However, it was a solid mass of people. Like seriously having to shove your way through armpits and legs to get anywhere. And there’s the icky guys who try to start fights on top of you, and the slitty-eyed, swaying ones who give your shoulder a pat as they pass (that’s what they reach – I’m short) and the smoke… It was actually kind of fun, though, mostly because Natasha and I just giggled at being shoved against walls or other moving bodies time and again because of the crush. And then that cute guy who was seriously flirting at me with his eyes all night, doing funny dances so I’d take pictures and chuckling at my silly dance moves. I could have had a hot Austrian fling… (Mom’s not reading this, right?)

We got back at 3 a.m. I through all my stuff into my bags and set my alarm for 5:50. Our train was at 6:28 a.m. I knew I was about to wish myself dead when I woke up after less than three hours of sleep.

Sunday, 20: I woke up when Natasha peeked her head in my room at 6:15 a.m. and said, “JESSICA? You’re NOT AWAKE?!?! You have five minutes!”

Huh, wha-? I mumbled, sitting straight up. Turned out I’d turned off my alarm in my sleep. I threw on clothes, stuffed everything into my backpack, made a harried survey for anything forgotten and was pulling on my coat and scarf as Natasha opened the door again. Let’s go!! she said and we ran. Again. At the train station, the screen of schedules wasn’t working but there was only one train sitting on a track so we made a beeline for that one. We jumped on and relaxed in relief. A couple other trains came and went, and when it rolled around to 6:40 a.m. I said, um… do you think we’re on the right train? What time is it? Natasha asked. Uh oh. I grabbed the small pamphlet that is in each compartment that lists the train schedule. When are we supposed to be in to Vienna? 11, Natasha said. This schedule shows us getting there at 1:20 p.m., I told her. What?? Natasha grabbed the schedule and read it for herself. It’s ok, we’ll just have a couple extra hours to rest or work on the computer or something. How much can you see of Vienna in two hours anyway? It’ll be fine, I said. In resignation, we spread ourselves out in the compartment.

Seriously, why did two trains leave for Vienna from Klagenfurt at the same time? And the schedule at the train station should not be broken. How were we to know where to catch our train? (They don’t check tickets at the door.) When the wagon controller came around to check our tickets he said, “Oh no no. This isn’t right. This is the wrong train for you.” “But it does go to Vienna,” I said. “No never,” he said. It’ll go around to Salzburg and somewhere somewhere and after 1, it will go to Vienna.” “So… it WILL eventually go to Vienna,” I said. Needed to clarify that alleged ‘never.’ “Yes,” he said, “but you must get off in two stops and change trains.”

This made us feel better, actually. Maybe we’d catch our original train still there or something. Or find another train that would get us to Vienna faster. When the train stopped at Villen-something, we queued up at the door nearest us and tried to open it. The button didn’t work, the handle wouldn’t turn, we were trapped on the train. Help! Natasha said. We both tried to tug at it but nothing. Other side, let’s go to the other side! I shouted and we sprinted down the corridor for the other side of the car, where people were getting onto the train. We stepped off, ran inside the terminal, and saw that our train to Vienna was just leaving at that moment. It was highly possible that if we hadn’t stood inside the train trying to get out for two minutes, we’d have made that one.

Oh well, no harm in waiting TWO HOURS for another train to take us to Vienna, meaning we arrived at 1:30 p.m. AFTER the other one through Salzburg. Stupid controller guy. While we waited at this interim train station, we  watched an episode of Glee on my computer until the battery died. Natasha didn’t want to watch. Isn’t into musicals, dancing and the like. She was so hooked that by the time I left Vienna two mornings later, we’d watched five and a half episodes.

The rest of the journey was uneventful. Natasha had to call her new friends that were meeting us and tell them to meet us later. We were pretty sure they’d know us because we’d be the ones kissing the ground of the precious city we’d tried so desperately to get to.

Our hosts were so kind. An older man and his son-in-law Darush met us. They brought us to their home and fed us fried, breaded pork, rice, bread, coffee and delicious homemade cookies. The couple speaks only German. Darush speaks German, Russian and English. I speak English and Ukrainian. Natasha has been studying German for a year so she knows Russian, Ukrainian, English and some German. She wins. She translated a lot. I thought that was amusing; a Ukrainian translating from German to English for the rest of us (except Darush). She spoke to Darush in Russian. We talked all evening and when it began to get dark, I whispered to Natasha, so what about our sleeping arrangements? I’m not sure, she said. Maybe it’s too late to find a hostel? I said. I’ll ask them if they’ll let us stay here, she said. They graciously agreed and gave us the living room.

I felt like it was my first week in Ukraine again. Eating in a house, real authentic food. Couldn’t understand a thing. Well, that’s not strictly true. Some sentences sounded so clearly like English that I did understand occasionally. The couple would say a lot to me in German, I’d nod, say yes yes a lot, and look intelligent, Natasha would translate.

Darush showed us on a map what we should go see the next day. They live near the center, which was great. We could walk everywhere. The couple went to bed at 8 p.m. or so. Natasha and I stayed up for awhile, talking and watching movies. We went to bed at 10.

Monday, 21: We woke at 7:30. Had a lot to see. Wanted to be back by 2 p.m. because our hostess wanted to fix us lunch. (Awesome). We used the map they’d given us and set out walking. We saw some cathedrals, beautiful statues. We tried to find the “rathause” (pronounced rat house) and stared at an apartment building before deciding to move on. We walked up and down these gorgeous velvet red stairs in a building that we happened upon, turned out later that that was the REAL rathause. We found the center, with the government buildings, opera house, royal buildings and museums. A guy stopped us to sell us tickets to a performance at the opera house that evening. I made the mistake of asking how much. “You want to know how much or you want to know about the performance?” he laughed. “We just want to know how much,” I mumbled to Natasha.
Got roped into a 10-minute presentation with a binder and photos and seating charts and everything.

We took photos by an emperor and Johann Strauss (statues) and Natasha made a snow angel in the trampled snow because she’d been dying to do this for days.

We paid the student’s to visit a museum of Natural History. Saw lots of taxidermied animals and bugs and birds and a 3-D video about marine life. It was funny. When we saw everyone wearing funny glasses, we grabbed some from the box, and two seconds in, Natasha’s all, what do we need these for? I don’t get it! because the screen was just tiny bubbles at that point. Just wait, I said. It’s 3-D. Oh cool! she said a moment later.

Then we walked back to our host’s house. That was easier said then done, as we couldn’t remember exactly where it was. We knew the general area, but as we walked down the street of busy shops, we’d say, do you remember that? do you remember this? I think so, keep going, it’s up there I think… Leave it to us, the equally unobservant girls. When we finally made it, we had delicious spicy goulash. Chunks of meat in a thick sauce with potatoes. After a couple hours of rest, our host took us back to the center to visit a mausoleum. I wasn’t entirely excited about that because mausoleums have dead people down there. He paid our fare, we were thankful, because remember how Austria is expensive? The ticket to Klagenfurt and back to Austria later was 48 Euros. The one to Salzburg one-way was 36.

It was interesting, in a morbid sort of way. There were coffins for famous people.
Each was elaborately decorated with sculptures and other artwork. It was more interesting for Natasha because she’s heard more about some of those people. Dad probably would have known some of them. (?)

Back on the street, we walked some more. Our guide bought us hot roasted chestnuts and then pointed out some of the restaurants he’d helped to design and build. We went in a pizzeria. All of this, he said, was my idea. That was kind of cool. He led us to one restaurant and we walked down steps into a restaurant of old bricks and arched ceilings. This was part of the labyrinth (catacombs) that go all the way to the airport, he said. He ordered open-face sandwiches for us. They were not what I am used to, and I’ve gotten used to many different things. :) It was pieces of bread spread with a fat-substance (like Crisco), piled with onions and sprinkled with paprika. Again, Dad would have loved it. :) It was ok. We also ordered two glasses of wine a piece. That was tasty. Natasha and I practiced my Ukrainian. When she’d translate from German for me, she’d translate into Ukrainian. That was kind of fun.

Then we walked back home and had sausages with mustard for supper and coffee. They don’t have internet, so I couldn’t check -in online to my flight the next morning, the way I like. So I asked if they had a number for the airport that I could call to confirm at least. They found one in the phonebook and I called, waited on hold for ages. Finally called information, asked for another number, they gave me another and one for information at the airport, called that number, they gave me the first number, so I hung up and called the information number. They connected me to the booking desk and I was able to confirm. This took about 30 minutes, all while the couple and Natasha sat patiently watching me, trying to help me bring everything together. :)

Natasha and I tidied, packed our stuff up and stayed up until 2:30 in the morning because first we watched Glee, then we couldn’t sleep so we’d periodically start talking. I couldn’t sleep because flying always makes me nervous and anxious. Not the actual flying, just worry about being on time, getting there, had to get my luggage from the storage center, etc. Eventually I told Natasha we should try to sleep for five minutes and see how it goes. It worked for me pretty well.

I call this "AirArt." My friend Matt thought I was a goofball.

Tuesday, 22: Natasha and I got up at 6 a.m. This was kind of early, it turned out. We got everything  packed up and ready, ate breakfast, and then sat around talking for a few minutes. We said goodbye to our new friends, and set off from their apartment at 7:20 a.m.

We tried to find another transportation other then CAT to take us to the airport. CAT is the airport transport that is a speedy 16 minutes from the center, and is advertised EVERYWHERE. Also, it costs 10 Euros one way, and Natasha had wanted to go with me to say goodbye but couldn’t afford that. We asked a lot of people and they all said the same thing, take the CAT, it’s the express train to the airport. There’s probably a secret bus or something, but no one knows about it, because there are green signs for CAT on every corner, I said, annoyed. Eventually, we resigned ourselves, and Natasha walked me to the CAT station. We followed the signs, and green lines on the sidewalk. What’s cool is that inside, they had Austrian Airlines check-in. You can check in there and they transport your bags to the plane. Since I’d left my luggage at the airport, I couldn’t do that, but I did get my boarding pass there. No line, too.

Then we waited for the train. When it came, 20 minutes later, Natasha and I said goodbye, and I felt like I was leaving my last link to Ukraine behind. I’d had my last chance to speak my new language.

I got on the train, and arrived at the airport 16 minutes later (as promised), collected my bags, delivered my luggage to the check-in people (was glad they didn’t bat an eye at the weight thing – one bag 10 pounds overweight) and went to find the terminal. As I followed signs, a welcome sight met me. Matt beaming at me, right there in front of me. That was quite a comfort, that he’d be sharing this long flight with me and that he’s another link to Ukraine. We sat for a few minutes at a café, I drank a cola, he drank coffee, then went to wait for the plane. We met some new friends, a group who’d been in Serbia for a week for Operation Christmas Child, chatted with them for awhile. Then. We boarded. And we left Eastern Europe on a lovely 9 hour 36 minute flight.


It was a long flight. We were grumpy by the end. I said goodbye to Matt in DC, went through Customs, then waited to board my plane to Denver. When I handed my boarding pass to the guy, it beeped. Why's it beeping?! I said, alarmed. No one else's had beeped. He put my name in the computer, then picked up a white ticket next to him that had "Business class" typed on it. "You've been upgraded," he said expressionlessly and moved on to the next customer.

What, no fanfare? I'd been UPGRADED. I found my seat, a lush, wide affair with TONS of foot room and the ability to recline MUCH more than economy. "I've been upgraded!" I told my seat companion. She was happy for me. When she learned I was in the Peace Corps, she said, well! You're deserving! My bag went under the front seat, about four feet in front of me, and I settled in to splendor. They served us drinks while we were still sitting at the gate. They gave us table cloths for supper. I had to find my tray table, it was cleverly hidden. We had sirloin steak (tiny but still) and alcohol if we wanted. The lady next to me offered to take my picture. I felt like a dork.


I got more and more anxious the closer we got. Then, because we were late, we had to let all the people off first who had connecting flights. Didn't they know the ANTICIPATION I was under? I hadn't been home in a year! I still got off pretty quickly, being in business-class and all. Got out of there, went upstairs, and there was my family. My mom, sis, Dad, best friend Jo, her sister Ali, and her sister's baby Addison, who I'd never met. We hugged, it was awesome, I caught them up on the most recent goings-on like BUSINESS CLASS.

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