The Haunted Hostel and the Orangerie

February 10

We almost didn’t go to Salzburg. The train ticket was booked, but the accommodation costs were proving prohibitive. An Airbnb in the city centre for 100$ a night? Good bye budget. Sharing a couch in a university dorm? We’re not really that cuddly. A commercialized charm-free hotel on the outskirts? Boring. So we settled for the worst possible combination of all three: A university dorm turned hostel in a far flung corner of the city with 5’10” twin beds, no soap in the bathrooms, and more negotiations required to get access to wifi than to get an EU visa.

Ok so it wasn’t the end of the world, but after our stellar stay in Prague we felt as if we had dragged ourselves into a mid-90s horror film. Did I mention that I am sure the place was haunted? The first night, there was absolutely no-one else staying on our entire floor. But that didn’t stop the banging of the bathroom doors from echoing into our room and rattling our travel resolve.

The most inconvenient reality of our new home was the complete lack of any self-catering options. Every one of the eight other places we have stayed at so far had, at very least, a hot plate and a mini fridge. In Salzburg, we would be entirely dependant on Yelp and our meagre. neighbourhood for every meal. Goodbye budget.

What we didn’t realize during our first night in “Schloss No Wifi” was that staying in the foothills of the Alps can’t possibly be a bad decision.

On our first full day in Salzburg we embarked on the first hike of our trip. At 4.5km it wasn’t exactly an Alpine ascent, but Jakob vetoed my plans to climb the nearest Toblerone peak. The hike began with a steep path up to a Capuchin monastery, marked out with fourteen chapels, each one dedicated to one of the stations of the cross. I loved the kinetic spirituality of it all. What better way to meditate on Jesus’ suffering and sacrifice than to hike 300 meters straight up?

The views from the top were spectacular:

We made our way down, stopped over at Mozart’s place for a cup of tea, and then began searching for a place to have dinner.

The art of budget travel involves buying most of your food from a grocery store and then finding permissible places to eat it. In the summer, this is as simple as finding a picnic spot. But in the winter, this is a strategic game of how-long-can-I-hold-this-sandwich-before-my-fingers-fall-off? Unless of course there is a Renaissance palace in sight, because where you find palaces you find orangeries. Where you find orangeries you may find a careless night manager who forgot to lock the place after its 4pm closing time. And where you find an unlocked tropical oasis in the middle of Austrian winter, you will find snoopy travellers munching on cheese and napping under the leaves of exotic houseplants.

A couple hours later those same lounging vagabonds were sitting upright in red upholstered chairs in a gold leafed room below a crystal chandelier listening to the moving strains of Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik played by a string ensemble. I tucked my muddy hiking boots under my chair and tried to applaud at the right moments. The guest appearance of an oboist was the highlight of the concert.

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Me bracing myself for a classical music concert

“Ah that’s what it’s supposed to sound like.’ I whispered eagerly to Jakob (if you have the privilege of not knowing, I should mention that I played oboe in high school).

He gave a slight nod, barely opening his eyes, so as not to disrupt his experience of the music.

I stayed as quite as I could for the rest of the night, recalling one of the primary rules for a happy marriage to a Kort: Don’t talk during good music.

When we finally made our way back to our corner of Salzburg, “Schloss Small Bed” didn’t seem so bad after all.

“Having no wifi access is kind of nice right?”
“Ya it’s sort of refreshing. Like we are getting a more authentic experience.”
“Like we can be more fully present.”
“So should we hit up McDonald’s tomorrow to check Facebook?”
“Ya definitely.”

Now I feel obliged to dedicate this post, which was written with frost-bite free fingers, to Archbishop Wolf Dietrich Raitenau, who built Schloss Mirabell and its lovely Orangerie more than four hundred years ago for his mistress and 15 children who he wasn’t supposed to have. Thank-you Wolf.

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Dinner in Prague

February 5-9

The story of our time in Prague is best told by food. Not because we ate out at so many amazing local restaurants, but because we didn’t. For the most part, our meals were had around a large family style dining table. Perhaps it was meant to seat fourteen, but we managed to fit at least twenty around its worn wooden surface.

This table was found in a warm and lively shared kitchen in downtown Prague, only a hundred meters away from a magnificent fifteenth century city gate. While I am irresistibly drawn to all things medieval, I have to admit that we spent far more time at this simple kitchen table, than we did exploring the thirteenth and fourteenth century wonders of Prague. So before you start judging my historical indifference, let me tell you more about this very special table, and the conversations that were had around it.

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The Powder Tower gate, just down the street from our home sweet home

First, it is worth noting that these experiences were only possible because our home in Prague, Hostel One Home offered FREE family style dinners EVERY night…if only all hostels were like this.

I have to start this story just before our first dinner. After arriving in Prague, I had collapsed onto my carefully chosen lower bunk bed in our ten bed dorm (for the full TMI account on why I was exhausted I must refer you to my previous post). After a forty-five minute nap, I woke up to the sound of Jakob recounting the details of our life to a complete stranger: “We met when we were in grade five. I dated Meghan’s best friend in middle school. Then in grade eleven we started dating. In her second year of university, we broke up for like one week, maybe two weeks and then in 2013 we got married…” I dragged myself out of bed. I should probably meet this person who now knows far more about me than I do about her. Jakob’s new friend’s name was Kate. Like all other Kates we have every known, Jakob got along with her immediately.
“She reminds me of someone,” he told me as we walked the few steps to the kitchen for dinner.
“Ya totally, maybe Tiegan? or maybe Veronica?” I had been trying to figure it out too.
“No…not quite…Anna Kendrick! yes Anna Kendrick!”
Great, Jakob had just found the doppelgänger of his celebrity crush. Guess I’ll say my goodbyes now.

Stepping into the kitchen for our first dinner, we were each greeted with a large bowl of bacon Alfredo pasta and told to find a seat. Immediately, I felt about eight years old again. I didn’t have to cook, shop, clean, or even think. The food found me and all I had to do was eat it with a grateful heart. The table quickly filled up, there were three young American women who were on a week break from their semester abroad in Montpellier, an American computer programmer with an Economics degree from Harvard, two Americans on a long weekend break from their English teaching jobs in Austria, and Kate (also an American…but from the west coast, so we claimed her as one of our own.) So if you missed that, we were surrounded by a lot of Americans. Despite our vast differences in culture and language, we all became fast friends.

About twenty two hours later, we were back together again in the dorm common area counting down the minutes until dinner. Some of us were on couches, others on bean bags, a few seated on the floor leaning against the brightly painted walls. It reminded me of high school days, when we had nothing better to do then lounge around waiting for the bell to ring and the next thing to begin. We all had a story to tell from our day in the city. Perhaps it won’t surprise you that after the late night on the town (see Jakob’s latest blog post) everyone else’s days hadn’t been much more successful than ours. One stayed in bed until noon, two got sort of lost, and three went thrift store shopping. We all were relieved to know that dinner would, once again, magically appear in a bowl in front of our seats around that family sized table.

This time, the bowl bore chilli. The best chilli. Made with love by Nick-from-Spain (who happens to have the same birthday as Jakob). Also there was a massive silver mixing bowl with fried tortilla chips at the bottom. As we ravenously shoved chilli and chips into our mouths, an intense discussion arose.
“What are the spices on these chips?”
“I taste cinnamon.”
“Cinnamon? Who would put cinnamon on chips?”
“Maybe some paprika?”
“I just taste salt, a lot of salt.”
“They are in such a big bowl, I can barely even see over the edge. The real question is why are there so few chips in such a big bowl.”
“I think it was for mixing the spices.”
“Oh no, there are only like three chips left.”
“You’re kidding me, how can the chips be almost gone? They’re so good and the bowl is so big!”
“Quick, none of the staff are watching their bowl.”
“Hurry, hurry, they’re coming back to the table.”
“Fewf, nice steal.”

With our bellies full of chilli and chips, we waited around the table, like children, for the next thing to happen. Sure enough the same hands that had provided our food pulled out a game board and passed around some beers and we all joined in. Part way through the game, three awkward young asians walked in to the room. More Americans? Their English was perfect but slightly British. Nope, they were from Singapore. Finally, a little diversity for this crowd! One hour later, we were bundling up and wandering our way through the tourist-free version of Prague’s streets. All I knew about our destination was its GPS location (I, for one, am not getting lost in a foreign city) and that it was nicknamed “the dog bar.” I was beside myself with excitement. I pictured a massive Newfoundland(?) with a mini keg around his neck wandering around and nuzzling the patrons with his soft wet nose.

Only a few short minutes after arriving, I let out a small shriek.
A fur blanket drapped over a couch in the corner just moved. Wait, that’s an animal. That’s a massive dog! His hair was matted and grey and his sad eyes roved the room aimlessly.
“How does a dog in a bar get so dirty,” I exclaimed angrily.
“I think it’s dirty BECAUSE it lives in a bar,” Kate replied with an equal level of disappointment and concern.
“We have got to break it free.” I devised a plan using my llama herding skills and Kate’s stunning good looks. She would distract the bouncers and I would rush the dog out through the small entryway…wait is that a ladder? Are there people sitting on the rafters?It didn’t take long for Kate and I to become distracted from our plot. We shimmied our way up the rickety wooden rungs and perched ourselves above the bar going crowd.
My first thought was, “if this breaks, who do I sue?” The first thing Kate said was, “I guess insurance policies aren’t a big deal in the Czech Republic.”
No one else up there looked too concerned. After a few photos, we were ready to put our feet back on solid ground. Perfect timing, one of the hostel staff, Matt, came sprinting around the corner, “I just found a brilliant (I don’t know if he actually said ‘brilliant’ but he’s British, so in my head he said ‘brilliant’) spot for us all right by the live music stage.” We snatched our coats and raced off into the maze of underground rooms and bars.

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Kate and I scoping the bar for hotties from the rafters

The table was situated on top of a graffitied wooden structure about three feet high and with about three feet of clearance above it. We all crawled up the stairs to the upper platform and got cozy. Wait are there people sitting underneath us too? Yup, sure enough there were people packed into the little space underneath, what is this? Jakob didn’t bother climbing into our little table cave. He was glued to the live music, which was one level below us and behind a layer of what looked like soccer goal netting. To prevent falling drinks? People? It’s anyone’s guess, but at least some one had thought of safety.

I spent most of that time chatting with the Singaporeans.
“I have my masters in French history and I want to become a professor, but the job prospects aren’t great. Nobody is hiring history professors these days.”
“Actually, in Singapore people love that shit.”
“Ya the arts are really big. They closed a court house recently and turned it into an art museum.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. There is a place where people actually value and even respect an arts degree??? By midnight I was interested in visiting Sigapore, and by 2 am I was filling out my paperwork to become a teacher in the safest country in the world.

Ok we did some things other than have dinner, here are some photos from our walking tour on day two:
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A somewhat spooky statue of Jan Hus. He was a church reformer one hundred years before Martin Luther! I love that his story is such a focal point for the city of Prague. In the words of Jan: “People gotta know what they believe, can’t be having church in Latin.”

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A cool house found in Prague’s jewish quarter. Our walking tour guide said it is used for weddings and other ceremonies.

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Twilight view of castle hill

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Some fake medieval stuff on top of some real medieval stuff

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Charles bridge

Now back to the story…

That evening, as we gathered for dinner, Jakob mentioned, “so we want to move to Singapore.” Hands flew up in defence and eye brows expressed concern.
“It’s very expensive.”
“We are not representative of Sigaporians.”
“Ya, just because you like us doesn’t mean you will like our country.”
“Not everyone is as nice as us.”
“Ya we know,” I admitted, “but you guys just make it sound so great, maybe it would be a good option for us for a few years.”
In the back of my mind I knew this would be one of just many work abroad whims, but why not embrace the adventurous fantasy and see where it goes?

Jakob’s sense of adventure came to an abrupt halt a few minutes later while sitting around the family dinner table.
“Babe, are you ok?” I probed nervously
“Ya, I’m fine.”
“You don’t like the food do you?”
“I haven’t even tried it yet.”
If I know one thing about my husband, it is that he does not, under any circumstance eat couscous. So don’t blame me for jumping to conclusions. Sure enough, ten minutes later, I was finishing off his bowl, and that of one of the Americans. I certainly wasn’t going to turn down fresh veggies. Let me remind you, we have spent the last two weeks in central Europe in January, I was beginning to forget what a cucumber looked like. Yet the saddest part of the evening was not Jakob’s inability to be gastronomically adventurous (yes I am still talking about eating couscous), but saying goodbye to the Sigaporians and most of the American crowd. I could hardly believe it had only been between 24 and 48 hours since we had all met.

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Our last day was spent exploring the castle hill with Kate. Their job was navigating, my job was making up fun historical facts.

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The view over Prague from the castle hill

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Sometimes it’s hard to take sightseeing seriously

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Doing a little bad ass graffiti at the John Lennon wall

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These Czech Trdelníks (known to our hostel crew as turtlenecks) were just as delicious as they look. Yes I got chocolate on my nose.

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Just three westcoasters checking out Prague.

The next evening there were more veggies in our bowls mixed with the tears of goodbyes. It was our last night. I ate not one, not two, but three bowls of Zach-from-Edmonton’s amazing chicken stir fry. I ate as if rice and peppers alone could keep tomorrow from coming. Tomorrow, when we would have to pack our bags and say goodbye to the most fantastic hostel we had ever stayed at. Yes we did manage to say goodbye, fortunately Kate’s train left only thirty minutes after ours, so we could offer each other moral support as we walked away from that warm kitchen full of loving people. Good bye friends, good bye table, good bye Hostel One Home. We will miss you!

A Time to Laugh and a Time to Listen

January 22-28

Our time in Krakow can be split quite neatly into two categories: time spent laughing and time spent not laughing. Upon arrival at our hostel, the Dizzy Daisy, we were eager to meet fellow travellers and to make some short-term friends. Our last three nights, since saying goodbye to Yakob in Berlin, were spent at an Airbnb in Warsaw. While the city was fascinating and the Airbnb host was lovely, I think we were both ready for a change of scenery.

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This adorable Warsaw town square is not as old as it looks. The original medieval buildings were destroyed by the Nazis and rebuilt in the decades after the war.

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Another Warsaw re-creation…they certainly are experts at imitating medieval architecture.

I was looking forward to some authentic medieval architecture (no offence Warsaw, I know it’s not your fault your city was destroyed) and Jakob was ready to hang out with some fun-loving hostel dwellers (not that I’m not fun, but he only has so much patience for historical and political discussions). Upon arriving Jakob was quick to introduce himself to the only other person in our 10-bed dorm. A Brit? Or something like that, it’s always hard to tell with all those different UK accent variations. We immediately forgot his name and headed out for dinner. Now I would love to not tell you the details of dinner…but I guess I will sacrifice some of my travel pride in exchange for a good story. Keep in mind, we had just taken a 5 hour bus ride from Warsaw with only one slice of cheese, one sausage, and some chocolate and so we were VERY hungry. Let’s say delusional with hunger. So we started walking towards town. Since two hungry people trying to make decisions together is NEVER a good idea, I told Jakob that he could choose where we went for dinner. The meandering medieval streets were not our friends, and instead of finding an interesting old town restaurant, we found ourselves back at the bus station (which is also a train station and massive mall). Well, we were too hungry to turn around, so back into the madness of the station we went. Moments later we were staring at a semi-familiar smorgasbord of food court options. Starbucks, yup we know what that is; North fish, I guess seafood? In southern Poland? In a mall? Gross!; Pizza Hut, nope (ok to be honest we had Pizza Hut on our last night in Warsaw, another moment of travel shame); Sushi? Jakob would rather take a train across Siberia…then we spotted a buffet counter with what looked like Polish food. Hey! Looks like we can still have a kinda genuine cultural experience in a food court, right? We aren’t total travel failures, right? So on a whim we grabbed plates as big as frisbees and loaded them up with stuff we only sort of recognized, all the while quietly narrating “I think that looks like chicken, those are vegetables, I am sure those are vegetables, mmm doesn’t that thing look delicious!” Sitting down, we applauded our ‘adventurous’ choice and watched in disdain as someone a few tables over maoed-down on a Big Mac. Fifteen minutes later, I was eyeing the garbage can and trying to figure out if I was eating a perogy or a soggy meatloaf. As we scrapped the unbearable bits into the trash we resolved to find real Polish food, somewhere, someday, maybe after we regained some of the trust we once had in the restaurant industry.

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A little stressed when we had trouble finding our bus in Warsaw

After a couple hours of wandering the old town and wondering why it is still Christmas in Poland (really, does anyone know why there are still lit trees and decorations everywhere??) we returned to the Dizzy Daisy. We were please to see a few more potential travel besties lounging in the dorm couches. Jakob was quick to introduce us, and we joined the Britt (who’s name we still couldn’t remember) and two young Australian women on the couches. Conversation was halting at first. Where are you from? How long are you traveling? What did you do before becoming a full-time vagabond? Eventually we pulled out a massive bag of pretzels and the international language of sleepover food got things flowing. No beer, no wine, no Doritos, just one bag of pretzels and a plenty of water and we were soon pouring out our hearts and laughing uncontrollably. I caught Jakob’s eye, “this is what travel is all about,” I told him telepathically. He grabbed another pretzel and gave me a glance that said: “I know, we are hilarious, these people love us.” Until 1am we discussed anything and everything: moose, spiders, boxing, voting, colonialism, relationships, hometowns, Brexit, Trump…you name it. Some time just before midnight and just after one of the well-traveled Australians used the phrase “hot tip!” for the third time (leading to uncontrollable giggles, no joke, picture a nine year-old’s birthday party), I realized that I had no idea what their names were. Giddy on pretzel salt I blurted out, “I just realized I don’t even know your names!” Of course they knew Jakob’s name and my name because of our adorable tendency to tell stories about each other or our less adorable tendency to reprimand each other when the story is miss-told. The delayed introduction went off with little to no awkwardness and, before we knew it, we dove back into the personal details of our lives and travels. Finally, exhausted and content, we all shuffled the three steps to our respective bunk beds and drifted off to sleep, laughter still ringing in our ears.

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This is the Christmas tree in Old Town Warsaw, but Krakow is no different…Christmas in January

The next day there was more laughter. We chuckled when the four year old boy in our tour group wouldn’t stop yelling “Whisky, Whisky, WHISKY, I love Whisky” as he ran circles in a massive underground Cathedral built in a medieval salt mine. We giggled awkwardly when an elderly Polish man, who we met at a piano jazz club, freely offered us the details of his complicated family history after I asked him how long the plane flight is to where he now lives in the UK. We laughed out loud when a familiar voice and face greeted us on an unfamiliar Krakow street, it was one of the Australians! Nothing like running into an ‘old’ friend to make a place feel like home.

Our laughter stopped the next day as we stood in a horrible place. Honestly, it didn’t look so bad at first. Rows upon rows of red brick army barracks. Birds sat peacefully on the roofs and small trees grew along the paths. It could be a quaint, although much too symmetrical, Polish village. We stood in a group of twenty-or-so English-speaking tourists. Our serious-faced guide held our attention effortlessly as she explained how this place once named Oświęcim in Polish became Auschwitz in German. These buildings that were once built for the Polish army were turned into a work camp for Polish political dissidents (anyone who wore glasses, held advanced degrees, or had a penchant for revolt), then it was turned into a death camp for those deemed subhuman (Jews, gypsies, and others), finally it was expanded into a “death factory” 25 times the size of the original grounds and built from the bricks of a demolished Polish village. The only flicker of a smile on any of our faces was when the guide explained where the looted belongings of the victims were kept—Canada. The storage facility was named after the land of plenty and prosperity. Was that supposed to be a joke? Who would have thought of something like that!? The guide glanced around and asked if anyone in the group came from Canada. My stripped mitten shot into the air and then I pulled it down a bit…was this really the time for national pride?

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The quite serene looking barracks at the original Auschwitz camp

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The much larger and more haunting landscape at the expanded part of the concentration camp (Birkenau) just a few minutes drive away from Auschwitz.

The entire experience was probably the most somber four hours of my life. Our guide took every opportunity to make the experience more relatable. “Look at this pile of hair” “look at all of these shoes, look they even brought shoe polish, these people had no idea where they were going,” “look this woman wore sunglasses on her way to Aushwitz…sunglasses,” “look at this train car, made for 15 cows, how many humans? How many days?” “200 humans, and 4-11 days.” She quizzed us, reiterated details, stared into our souls, and quizzed us again. I was afraid if I cracked a smile she would make me write lines, or worse send me back through those awful chambers that I certainly never wanted to set foot in again. When we arrived back at the hostel that night a few of our fellow hostellers asked about our day. “We went to Auschwitz.” “O ya? How was it?” I paused and thought through my possible responses “Good?” no that can’t be the right answer…”It was interesting, I learned a lot.” Which was the truth. I learned about the dangers of fascism. I learned that racism isn’t a joke. I learned that whenever we dehumanize others, even in the smallest ways, we normalize hate. These lessons aren’t new, but they are pertinent. We still live in a world were politicians make generalized statements about entire ethnic groups and issue orders to build walls. On today, the 72nd anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, I don’t mind taking a break from the laughter and fun of travel and remembering that we must never let this happen again.

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The pile of shoes

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The train car