I’m currently sitting in [what I would consider] a supremely hipster coffeeshop in Shoreditch – an East London haunt on Brick Lane, formerly the home to pre-World War II Londoners who couldn’t afford the rent in Central London proper (although Shoreditch itself is within Zone 1). Shoreditch was bombed during the war and was built up soon after, and artists moved in, seduced by the low rent. It was, at some point in the near past, “run down,” street art fills the brick facades at a rate unseen in Central London. Soon, if it hasn’t happened already, 25 year old bankers and stock brokers will hop the short distance from East Central London proper over to Shoreditch, and flush out the artists even further East – it’s already happening: they’re spreading to Hackney. It struck me to consider gentrification as I sit in this well curated shop – the mismatched stools, vinyl just so effortlessly distressed, overpriced sandwiches which I have guiltily just consumed. (This sandwich though, I’m not sure I’ve ever waxed poetic about food, but the tart fruit and warm honey and good hearty bread is a nice kick to my system after a week of Eastern European fare.) To my American brain, gentrification means pushing out the lower income sector [often people of color] to make room for the hipster artists. They swallow up businesses by (unintentionally?) racketing the rent. See: Chicago, New York. In London, it’s the artists, the hipsters, the young kids, who are pushed out of their homes, their businesses, their communities. Will this place (quaintly called Full Stop) still be here when, not if, [more] money falls into Shoreditch? Or is it just a cycle, Shoreditch’s population running through its course: artists, money makers, artists again. Either way, the neon pink and green raccoon with lightening bolt eyes and yellow glasses that’s staring at me from across the road, painted on a garage door, is comforting. So is my mint tea.
I was planning to spend the day in bed, curled up in my sheets, surveying the mountain of hastily shed traveling clothes. A pile of sweaters, shirts, pants worn for days, well-loved wool socks, piling up next to my desk. My upturned travel bag spilling out my hat and gloves, bobby pins. My camera case rested on my desk, which itself was covered with notebooks, headphones, keys, various tickets to museums and palaces. I had planned to ignore all of that, hide away from it and sleep. But instead, I picked myself up and washed my face, and the second I started buzzing around my room I wanted out. I shoved the mountain of laundry into my basket, placed my travel bag neatly in the closet, put away the keys, the headphones, the camera, the chargers. I cleaned up my tiny sink area while I brushed my teeth and put on makeup. By the time I pulled on my boots I was ready to go out and explore again.
My mundane trip to the post office, to the grocery store, to the coffee shop, feels a bit underwhelming after my week of travel. But at the same time, it’s nice to start my new routine: we have a break from classes for a month to write papers, research dissertation topics, stretch our legs. I suppose most of my days will be spent like this – heading out somewhere, laptop in hand, scribing emails to research librarians. Or just taking a trip to East London to see something new.
I spent the last week doing something new: I visited Europe for the first time. Technically, I believe, I presently reside in Europe. The United Kingdom is part of the E.U. but it does not keep the Euro currency, nor does it have an open border policy with the continent. I had to pass through border security for a second time when I re-entered London last night, even though I was only flying from Vienna. Regardless, I visited continental Europe for the first time this past week and it was an enjoyable experience.
I went with two friends, both of whom I met during the first week here. We planned this trip a month or so ago, wanting to take advantage of our proximity and break from classes to explore cities none of us had visited. We flew out last Friday evening, I was coming from my final practical exam, from Heathrow. I learned, when the guard quaintly smiled at me, that nowhere else except in the United States, do you remove your shoes to walk through security. I also realized, that while I travel often, it has been quite some time since I’ve had to properly pack for a real trip. I had to Google the weight limit for travel size shampoo because I had never really needed to know the answer. When I flew between home and school, I would use whatever toiletries were available at the other end. When we trek to Florida, we go by car, and there’s no limit for traveling with liquids or food when you pack a car.
Our flight was delayed by some amount of time and I probably spent too much money on snacks at the airport, but eventually we took off to Prague. The flight was only two hours, and I was so tired from my exam that I passed out right after eating what they had labeled as a chicken sandwich, but it looked weirdly like a mash up of what you do with leftover Thanksgiving food, and I woke up with seven minutes till landing. The Czech border security was a breeze: he looked at my passport, at me, my visa, and stamped me on my way. Our first order of business was to find an ATM – we needed money for the hostel and for the bus. Prague is the capital of the Czech Republic (formerly Czechoslovakia), its time as an Eastern bloc country still readily apparent in its currency. It isn’t part of the Eurozone: it uses the Czech Crona – or the crown. It’s roughly 1 pound sterling (or 1.7 United States dollars) for every 42 crowns. Seeing that the lowest value I could withdraw was “3,000” was more than a bit jarring. While we weren’t exactly flush, as a normal street vendor food was 100 to 300 crowns, we made out very well for ourselves. Far, far better than we would fair in Vienna. Of note: the crown currency does not use cents, so all of their coins, from the 1 to the 50, are effectively whole units of currency. The lowest bill I saw was in the form of 100 crowns.
I was unable to take out any money from the ATM because I had withdrawn too many Euros at Heathrow. We wound up having to take a cab from the airport to the hostel for a few reasons. First, as very few people make a true habit of flying into the Czech Republic airport in Prague, it isn’t very big, and it isn’t open very late. With only 2,000 crown bills among us, we couldn’t exactly buy a 32 crown bus ticket -especially since the singular non coin-operated machine was broken. We asked around in an effort to make change, and decided to take a cab. Better, since they could take us right to hostel. It was late, our bags were heavy. The cab was a way to make change – it seemed like the best move.
We arrived at our hostel at 1:00 in the morning. We could pay when we wanted so the fact that I had no crowns on me didn’t mean anything. We were given keys and shown our room. The hostel had free wifi and breakfast in the mornings. It was a funky space – art was everywhere, the walls were painted in big, loud colors. It made the very tall, wide space feel more welcoming. We were on the third floor, above a collection of people from the D.R.C., who we never saw. Our floor had two dorms, each with three bunkbeds, lockers, outlets. There was a common kitchen area, a weird open bathroom layout, and a secret second shower (it wasn’t secret, but it was hidden behind the kitchen, away from the bathroom section so I doubt anyone went looking for it).
We had a couple from Australia stay with us the first night, and some German girls the second two nights. The first day we got up and had breakfast (lots of toast, jam, butter, normal fare) and headed out into the shockingly warm day. I was expecting Prague to be cold, or at the very least, the same weather as London. I was never ‘hot’ per say – because I’m never hot even in the middle of summer – but I was comfortable enough to walk around all day. We headed out into the center of town, a quick jaunt down the street. We booked a walking tour at 2:00, so we wanted to stay away from Old Town before then – our attempts to visit the national Museum failed, as it was closed for two years for repairs. We headed out into the first of many Christmas markets and explored around, grabbing lunch a while before our tour. We visited the astronomical clock, Old Town, the Jewish quarter, the New Town, and ended up somewhere around the Old Town square again. It was a long tour, with lots of stopping – by the end we were grateful for the warm restaurant and bulky Eastern European food. We all had traditional Czech food, which is frankly not very different from traditional Polish, Russian, or German food. Lots of pickled food, many potatoes, tons of meat. Hearty, warm, filling.
Something that I had prepared myself for initially, but was surprised by all the same was the disappearance of the luxury of water (and free public bathrooms). In the States, we may not do many things right, but we have amazing tap water. You can go anywhere and drink out of the tap, and no one will charge you for it. In London, tap water is fine to drink, and often available at restaurants. In Europe, it isn’t: they don’t have potable tap water, instead they sell bottled water. The main issue with the bottled water is it is heavily mineralized (even the “light mineral” version). The more mineral in the water, the less hydrating it is – translating to wanting to suck down more of it. Which is an issue when they charge by the bottle. Suffice it to say, we were careful with our water purchases.
We decided to have one day where we would go out. We didn’t want to go to a club because we weren’t dressed for it, but we wanted to experience some form of nightlife. I steeled myself the best I could: the name of the game was drinking, and I would do my hardest to keep up with my Eastern European roots. Plus – with 42 crowns to every pound, it was criminally cheap to drink cocktails – a luxury none of us can afford in London. To no one’s surprise, this went rather poorly.
I didn’t sleep: between the rocking of the bunk bed, and my headache, I just sort of laid there wanting to slowly drift away to sea. I am thankful, grateful, for the kindness of strangers. I may have looked like a cliched American, but the German bunkmate, who had never even introduced herself, padded out of the room (I would too, I thought) and came back with a small glass of water. “Here” she said, handing it to me. Hands down, that was the kindest and most comforting gesture anyone has ever done for me.
The rest of the day was touch and go: getting out into the cool air helped immensely, and I wouldn’t have traded the miraculous view of the city for anything. We had an enjoyable lunch, walked across the Charles Bridge, stumbled upon these fiercely creepy bronze-tinted baby statues while looking for the Lennon Wall (sad to report, we couldn’t find it), took pictures of the basilica, the palace. We visited the torture museum, a comically poorly translated collection of medieval killing devices. Then we wandered back into the Old Town for dinner, munching on Chinese food. The staff swindled us, but feigned a language barrier: we paid triple the price for a bottle of water, and could do nothing but pay the bill. I was thankful, again, for the low exchange rate of the crown: I could afford to be cheated out of my money in Prague.
That night we decided to find the bus station: it would be good to get our bearings for the next morning. The map said it was a ten minute walk. I am grateful that we went on this expedition, as our first attempt to find the bus station was a spectacular failure. We walked far more than ten minutes in search for this elusive building. We asked a rent-a-car place, we asked two separate store owners. After an hour, we gave up and went back to the hostel to settle our debts and turn in our keys. The next morning, with renewed vigor, we wrote out painstakingly detailed directions and managed to find the bus station with an hour to spare. Even better: the ticket to Vienna was only 7 USD. Well under-budget.
We bought some food with our soon to be useless Czech crowns (I’ve still got a few floating around in my wallet) and waited for our bus. I’m not sure what I was expecting, countrywide wise, maybe some mountain ranges, some rolling hills, some pristine mountain villages – I don’t know. It was foggier than San Francisco in the mornings in July, and the sun set soon after we left Brno (that’s not a typo, that’s the second largest city in the Czech Republic, which, when it was released from the Soviet bloc, was apparently unable to buy any more vowels). So there was nothing to see on our five hour bus ride to Vienna. We took the bus to the airport, and took an 8 euro shuttle to Westbanhoff, and walked a short jaunt over to the hostel.
Something I would soon find out about Vienna: it’s an incredibly expensive city to visit, and it does not believe in outlets. Clearly, the building our hostel was converted from, was never meant to be a hostel. Our room had six beds, and one outlet – by the door. There was a second outlet in the bathroom, in theory used for the hairdryer on the wall. A word about the bathroom. I was the first person to shower. I looked around and fiddled with the doors before hopping inside. It’s a European shower, which basically means the shower head doesn’t stick on the hook. I turned on the shower and it started to spray a bit so I shut off the valve and unhooked the head from the wall and held it facing the floor. A safe bet, I imagined. I took, what I believed at the time, was a very harmless shower. Soaped up, shampooed my hair, and didn’t spend too long humming any tunes. I shut off the water and opened the door to the shower and audibly gasped: there was water on the floor. My gaze traveled up: on the wall. I looked around: beetle sized water droplets had condensed on the ceiling and were beginning to drip. Now, you have to understand, that a few months ago, I had – through no fault of my own – completely flooded my apartment’s bathroom, so badly, that I broke the electrical in the flat below us. It wasn’t my fault, the drain hadn’t been cleaned in ages, and no one blamed me for it, but I was incredibly panicked nevertheless.
I asked for my towel from my bag, and in what would shortly prove to be the wrong order, began to sop up the floor, the wall, the door with my towel. It was only after I had cleaned up the tile that I realized I was still a soaking mess. I quickly toweled myself off, yanking around my sore piercing in the process – not thinking, I yelped a bit in pain (a confusing point that would only be addressed days later). I looked up at the ceiling and stepped into the shower, leaning against the sink and stretched up, whacking the ceiling with the towel, attempting to dissipate the water droplets. Good enough. My friend entered the bathroom after me, “Molly!” Oh no, that’s it, I thought, I’m done for, no one will want to travel with me again, and I’ll have to pay for whatever damage I’ve surely caused, “Look at the mirror, it’s so wet” I almost laughed. She should have seen the place before.
A few jokes were indeed made at my expense. The next day, my friend showered, hurrying out afterwards with the biggest apologetic look in her eyes. “I’m so sorry” she said, “that was most miserable shower experience of my life,” water had gotten everywhere. It wasn’t my fault: I was not the only person to get water on the ceiling. I don’t think I’ve ever felt more validated in my entire life.
In Vienna, we wandered around Christmas markets, went to the art museum, and got some street food. I made sure to order a large cheese covered pretzel and some hot chocolate out of a souvenir boot mug, because it felt appropriately touristy. Additionally: it was much colder in Vienna than in Prague. I resolved very hard not to complain about the cold, only allowing myself a few shivers and complaints after my friends bemoaned the weather. In the evening we went out for a hilariously expensive meal. It was 60-ish euros between the three of us, and they nickel and dimed us for everything. It was the first time I had ever paid for condiments, an experience I would not like to repeat.
I may be getting my days mixed up but we saw, in no particular order: the Summer palace of the Royal family, the Sisi museum, and, the highlight of the trip, the Spanish riding school. The Spanish riding school is named so because the original Lippizaner horse – the white stallions – were Spanish. When the Spanish ruler (… I’m going to call him Armand, but that’s incorrect) had to take over Austria’s empire, he brought his horses with him and bred them into the Lippizaner stallion, in Lipizzan (a town). When the Austro-Hungarian empire broke down, Lipizzan fell outside the border of Austria, and so the family was allowed to take 20 horses to Pilber, within the borders of Austria, to breed more Lipizzaner horses, allowing them to maintain the original sire line. At the Spanish riding school in Vienna, there is the winter training facility, stables, which used to be a palace, and are consequently beatifically grand. The horses are turned out for a half hour to warm up, and a half hour to cool down, and when they are training in the summer riding facility, they are turned out into their own individual pastures. For six non-consecutive weeks of the year, the horses are absolved from training. They are seldom ridden, if only to maintain muscle mass, and are simply allowed to be horses for just a little while. This keeps them healthy, strong, and willing to continue the hard training they undertake the rest of the year. A Spanish rider has a full time job: they start training as young as 14 and the cut off acceptance year is 26. They begin doing apprentice and stable work for a few years, and are then taken on as riders, their tuition paid for, and all of their dues paid off. They work 40 hours a week, and ride well into their 60s. The horses themselves are trained from the time they are four years old – they are born varying shades of gray and black, and often lighten to white / lighter gray by the time they are four and retire in their late twenties. It takes about 8 years for a horse to be trained into riding shape, and by that time, they are most certainly entirely white. Tradition has it, that, a black stallion must be part of the breed – it is not looked at as a curse, rather it is a blessing: legend has it that the school will only continue so long as there’s a black stallion at the stables.
We also visited the central cemetery, with over 330,000 graves, all very eclectic and grand in nature. Always a pleasant treat to see how other countries and cities bury their dead. Then we hit up some more Chinese food, and I was pleasantly surprised to make it to the airport with exactly just enough euros for the shuttle. We had a lot of time to kill in the Viennese airport, another building completely devoid of outlets and practical food choices. The flight was uneventful, the hour tube ride home, equally uneventful. I was happy to crawl into my bed around 1:00am on Thursday night/Friday morning.
I feel quite accomplished: I’ve never traveled like that before, without my family, and I would like to think I did very well. I’m exhausted, but I want to do it again. I hope I’ll be fortunate enough to do so in the future.
Here are a few photographs from my trip (I took about 400 total).
Ceiling of Spanish Riding School
One weird grave.
Hebrew clock in the Jewish quarter. It runs counter clockwise.
Creepy Baby Statue
The creepiest part of the baby statue
An example of the poor translations from the torture museum
From the Viennese art museum
Learning the ins and outs of shooting photographs through glass.
Travel friends (Maggie)
Travel friends (Meredith)