First order of business: my hard drive died on Thursday. I am slightly distraught by this, but only if the external backup I have in California, I don’t know, catches on fire or something before I get home. As it is now, I’ve only lost ~300 pictures which were, for the most part, already uploaded (albeit in lower quality) to Facebook. I now have a shiny new hard drive — and almost twice as much space, for whatever that’s worth.
Anyway, aside from apparently cursing every piece of electronic equipment I touched last week, I also managed to go some really awesome places.
- Poland. If someone sends you a Skype message at 1 AM telling you to show up at an U-Bahn stop on Friday afternoon with 25 € because some German guy offered to take you to a cabin in the Polish woods, congratulations — you’re probably going to get killed. Horrendously. Unless you’re me, because then you’ll get driven 200 km in a luxury sedan to go hang at a three story house on an estuary of the North Sea with ten Stanford kids and six awesome Germans.
- Slovakia. The original plan was to then fly to Vienna and take a bus to Bratislava with the entire Stanford program on Sunday morning. In what turned out to be a quite unexpectedly awesome turn of events for me, Iceland’s Mt. Eyjafjai’mascrewupyourtravelplansasaurusjokull decided to blow chunks all over Europe’s airspace, and so we caught a train at 6:43 in the godforsaken AM. This terrifying prospect was actually made much better by the prospect of mimosas on the train, and it was pretty cool to roll down central Europe — the scenery is beautiful, and I saw both Dresden and Prague for about ten minutes each.Now, I admittedly knew absolutely nothing about Slovakia before coming on this trip, but Bratislava impressed me. Slovakia’s in the EU, so I wouldn’t say I was expecting a burned-out shell of a country whose withered husk had been sucked so dry by the Soviet empire that it would be forever economically desiccated, but I was definitely not expecting the city to be so full of history or really cool places.
Bratislava was, for a time, the capital of the Habsburg empire (thank you, AP Euro), and so parts of the city are ancient. The streets are cobblestone, Parliament is next to a castle, and the buildings are adorned with plaques saying “Mozart slept here” or “Liszt composed here” or “Beethoven once thought about staying in this hotel but ultimately decided against it”. What I found strange, though, is that as beautiful as all the history was, not much of it is Slovakian history. There’s a ton of Hungarian, and a bunch of Soviet, but the landscape is dominated by cultures that, for the most part, dominated the Slovaks. In the twenty years or so since the fall of the Soviet Union, however, Slovakia has progressed a ton — and the city of Bratislava is starting to show that, with monuments to famous Slovaks or their own architectural achievements.
The trip Stanford takes every year is always to a different emerging eastern European or EU country (last quarter went to Istanbul), and so a large part of the trip is set aside for discussion of the politics of the European Union or the challenges facing said country before/after acceptance into the EU. It’s not how I normally spend my travel days, but it’s fine since the trip is totally paid for by George Will, a Stanford donor (shout out to mah boy George). We spent a lot of the time in Bratislava listening to lectures, which meant I learned more than I’d ever thought I would ever know about Slovakia. It’s a fascinating country, and seems to be doing incredibly well for itself. I’m very curious to see where it ends up in twenty years.
The great thing about going to these lectures, though, was that the majority of them were scheduled during meetings of some kind of international relations class at a Slovakian University. Stanford invited the students out to dinner with us and gave them a gift of 15 € a piece, which — believe you me — in Slovakia buys a ton of food and drink. The Slovaks were some of the nicest people I’ve ever met, and took the time out of their Monday and Tuesday nights (during school) to hang out with us, take us to bars, and generally show us a good time in Bratislava. (This included one bar which was also a train. And underground. It did not include the nuclear bomb shelter dug into the hillside that has been transformed into a club.)
By far one of the coolest things I did, though, was climb that bridge. And by climb, I mean take one of the most nicely furnished elevators I’ve ever been in up the slanted legs at a ridiculous velocity.
And on the way, I definitely found what will be my new catch phrase in the graffiti on the bridge:
- Vienna. Vienna is, without a doubt, the single most ridiculous city I have ever spent four hours in. I kept thinking, as I walked from one ornate palace to the next, that there could not possibly be another castle of church or sculpture around the next corner, because no city would be that ridiculous, and then I’d walk around the corner — AND THERE WAS ANOTHER GODDAMN BAROQUE PALACE.
The sculpture in the city is pretty incredible, even just the stuff that’s kind of sitting as an afterthought underneath a window or something. Sculpture in Vienna is like, I don’t know, trim on US houses. It’s everywhere. And awesome.