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Sunday, June 26, 2011

Grab a tea, this is a long one!

And then we left Latvia. Our last full day, a Thursday, was an unexpected and unexplained day off, which was quite lovely. We had watched the hockey game at 3am the night before, and gone to bed annoyed with the loss, only to wake up saddened by the riots. Zane was out doing something or other, so we generally entertained ourselves by walking to the store with Pietro for food for the bus, watching Friends, and doing some work. The walk home from the store was hilarious, as it started to sprinkle with rain, and Pietro went diving under a tree to wait for a ride while we laughed and asked if he was a cat. It’s a funny thing about living on Vancouver Island, or the West Coast in general, that if you can’t see the rain bouncing back off the street, it’s basically ‘not raining’ in most of our minds.

Back at the club, we helped Pietro with dinner, which was a lovely Italian spread. First, we helped him make Tiramisu by dipping Lady Fingers into espresso and shaping them around the dish while he made the mascarpone for it. That chilling, we diced tomatoes for the bruschetta, and then toasted the bread on the BBQ before rubbing them with garlic and topping them with the tomato mix—yum! The final dish involved very cute and tasty individual-sized pizzas that we deep-fried instead of baking as there is no oven at the club. Pietro said that it was a typical way of making pizza in his area of Italy, and they were absolutely delicious—hot and thick and chewy, just topped with a tomato sauce we had made and a little bit of parmesan. We made several palm-sized ones and they were gobbled up by everyone.

After dinner, we showed everyone some photos of home, Japan, and Iceland on Facebook, and then Agata brought her hoop, clubs, and ball over and did a rhythmic gymnastics performance in the squash club, which was pretty great. She’s very cute and obviously loves it a lot. We wanted to show her vaulting, so took her inside and watched some youtube videos and she showed us a couple of rhythmic movies as well.

Then we jumped online to buy our bus ticket for the next day and saw that there were only three seats left. Unfortunately, our Canadian credit cards didn’t work online, so we figured we would buy them over the phone the next morning. ‘Who’s going to buy the last tickets between midnight and 8am?’ we thought.

Famous last words.

I got up on the Friday at 6 to work, and as soon as 8am rolled around, called the number for the ticket agency listed on the website. ‘We don’t sell tickets,’ the ticket agent informed me. ‘No reservations, only ticket buying.’ Uhhhuh. ‘I want to pay for a ticket now.’ I said, hoping that would be doable, but ‘no. only online.’ ‘but online doesn’t work.’ ‘Sorry.’

Great. I called about six different agencies, getting progressively worried as none of them spoke English or could help me, and at the same time, the website was alternating between showing three and zero seats available.

Unfortunately, there is only one bus per week to Bratislava, so I was slightly worried, but figured that being a capital city in Europe, one could get out of Riga in one of a number of ways. Well….not so much. Still hindered by its communist past, Latvia is a bit marooned in terms of intercontinental transit; not helped by the fact that its trains are on a different gauge than the rest of Europe.

Finally and after much website checking, including one that told me ‘the circuit you are looking for is unavailable, please choose another race,’ I realized that we could leave at 10:40 that morning, take a bus to Warsaw, wait overnight, and then get on the original bus from Riga, which at that point would have emptied out sufficiently, and continue to Bratislava, arriving at the already-planned 7pm.

Good enough. At 9:15, we made the decision, borrowed a car, and leapt into action, madly leaving the club, which was a shame, and bolting to the bus station. As glad as we were to get on the bus, it was sad we didn’t get to say a proper goodbye to Andis or Agata, or have our last, planned day in Riga, get our patches, or check the mail one more time. I’m going to see if Zane can do that for me though. I want my mail!!!!

In a bit of a panic, we leapt onto our bus and settled in for the 12 hour trip, which actually went fairly quickly by the time we did some reading, sleeping, Friends watching, etc. It was hard to work as there were no plugs or wifi, but I finished a book I’m meant to be reviewing, so that worked out pretty well.

We had a few rest stops, including one about two hours from Warsaw that included internet, and it was there that we found out that Zane had been on the bugle and managed to find us both a couch to surf on and a back up, all for that night. It was pretty amazing! At about 11pm, we rocked up to the Warsaw Station (the smaller of two, but still), and found….nothing. No phone, no bank machine, no open anything except one small bar, a locked hostel, and no way to get online. Fantastic. After a few minutes of completely fruitless searching in a mostly empty, depressingly-Soviet building, I suggested we ask to borrow someone’s phone, and scanned the crowd for a good looking target. A goofy-looking guy and his friendly looking girlfriend. We had a bit of a language difficulty at first, when I said ‘can I use your phone?’ and he thouht I had his phone, and I thought he was taking the piss, but we got it sorted out, and called Agata, the woman that would be putting us up.

She said that because of her baby, she couldn’t leave the flat to get us, but we should get a bus to the main station and then another bus to her, and then call her when we got there, and see you later.

Right. These things are easier with money. And phones. And not being 11:30pm. The super-friendly guy and his gf, who were just dropping someone off, not getting on a bus, asked if everything was OK, and we asked if they could show us to a city bus. And if they knew where we could get some Zlotys (the Euro was seeming SO great at this point!). After we gave them the gist of the story, the guy said something along the lines of, ‘come. I’ll be your bus.’ And so, even though we’d sworn off hitchhiking in the Baltics, we headed off with them, into their Beemer, and traipsed across Warsaw. They were an absolutely lovely couple and he couldn’t have been more thrilled when I pulled out a keychain from Victoria to give them as a thank you for rescuing us from the Station. He gave me a huge hug, called Agata to make sure she was just around the corner, and then with a hug and a kiss to a girlfriend, literally skipped around the corner back to his car. What kind, kind people!

Agata, for her part, was amazing too. She walked down to a nearby corner to get us, and brought us back to her lovely flat, where we were incredibly glad to see a bed, reserve a hostel for Bratislava the next morning, and see a friendly face. She and her husband were also an incredibly sweet, adorable couple, and it was really cute to see them snuggling and laughing together so much. They put us to bed, as our four hours of sleep were ticking, and gave us enough Zlotys to get on the bus back to the main train station in the morning so that we wouldn’t have to pay 5$ in bank fees to withdraw 3$ worth of city bus fare, since our bus out of Poland was at 6:30 in the morning and we wouldn’t be needing cash for anything else.

More famous last words.

We got to the station at 6:11 for our 6:30 bus and headed to the platform to wait. And wait. And wait. At first, we weren’t too worried—our bus had been a good twenty minutes late the night before, and we figured that coming from Riga it could have been delayed overnight. But after two hours, we were more than a bit concerned, and after going in to the information desk, which said ‘I don’t know, ask that office.’ (which didn’t open for another hour) and discovering that there really and truly is nary a payphone in the entire bloody place, we asked a man with his daughter to call the bus for us, and found out that our bus was running 5 hours late. FIVE! Which of course it wasn’t. Six hours after it was supposed to have arrived, we had set up quite a camp on the platform, taking turns lying down and sleeping on the bags, and eating through our snack supplies as well as the snacks we could use a Visa card to buy (‘cos do you think there’s an ATM there? Hahah….noooo). At this point, we were again worried, especially when no drivers from the same company could tell us what was going on, and so finally Cecilia went into the office that had been closed before, and was told by a very grumpy woman that our bus had left at 6:30. Which it hadn’t, since we’d been sitting there, but at that point it was hard not to believe her. She offered us a special price ticket to Vilnius for that night, or a bus to Bratislava on Wednesday, and that was it.

About to bail for the train station, we found a sweet, middle-aged German lady that Cecilia was able to talk to, and got her to phone the bus for us. There had been an accident on the highway, we learned, and our bus had needed to wait for the road to reopen. It was on its way.

Hunkering back down to wait, and wait, and wait, we met Elisa (or something like that) from Turkey, who was a student in Bulgaria but doing Erasmus in Poland, and heading home. They had told her, like they had told everyone for whom they had a phone number, that the bus was delayed, so she hadn’t been sitting there all day, but she was able to confirm that there was a bus, on its way. With safety in numbers, we finally stopped worrying that we had somehow missed a huge yellow bus.

Finally, at 2:30pm, some SEVEN hours late, our bus arrived and we all jumped for joy, just a little bit. The poor, haggered passengers that got off made us very, very glad to have been in Warsaw over night, despite the various stresses of that decision.

Finally, at 3am, in pouring rain, we were deposited unceremoniously in Bratislava, and decided to get a cab to the hostel, betting that it was close enough to come in under the 6Euro Cecilia had to her name. Which it was, except the Euro had jumped ship by the time it came to pay, so we spent an embarrassing 10 minutes searching through every bag, trying to explain what was going on, offering him Lats, Krona of various sorts, and Canadian dollars, trying the nearby ATM that didn’t work, offering him Visa, all to no avail and one grumpy cab driver. Finally, I sent C up to the front desk to explain the situation and see if they would add the 6E to our bill and pay the taxi driver, which they couldn’t, but eventually the guy at the front desk gave us 10E (pissed off panda driver raised his fee due to the waiting) from his own pocket to pay the cab driver, who left just in time for the Euro to turn up in an unchecked inside pocket. Of course. We managed to pay back Jakob for almost everything and promised him the last .60E (dollar CDN) in the morning.

At that point, Cecilia went to bed, and I went to work. In the end, I didn’t sleep, because I figured that I would be more miserable after two hours of sleep than none, so I just worked until 7:30, had a shower, and then woke her up again as it was time to head to Pezinok.

Pezinok is a small town known for wine just about an hour by city bus outside of Bratislava. It was really cute, but the reason we were there was for CVI Slovakia, being held at a fairly large and really nice horse park. We got off the bus around 9:30 and met Barbora, who would be our couch surfing host for that night. She was 26 and had a very, very cute dog named Coco, who was Jack Russell-mutt and liked to bark at you until she knew who you were. It was pretty cute. Barbora took us to a grocery store for supplies and then walked with us to the horse park, about twenty minutes out of town. She headed off to do…something…for the day and left us to it. We met Dieter, who we will be staying with and vaulting with in Prague, and he gave us competitor wrist bands so that we could head wherever we wanted to around the park. We started off watching junior team, and then junior freestyle, which was great. It was lunch, then, and we met back up with Dieter and sat in the little cafĂ©, where we ran into Lukas Klouda, one of the top vaulters in the world. It was pretty cool to hang out with him for a little bit, and he and Dieter seem to be pretty good friends. They are from different parts of the country, but must see each other a lot. Lukas, entertainingly, has converted an old school bus into a horse trailer. I wish we could have seen that better.

After lunch it was senior freestyles, and we got to see Lukas go, with a good round, as well as Dieter’s individual male, who also had a good round. We also saw the pas de deux, which were pretty cool—Kornelia and Blanka, whom we had seen at CVI Chilliwack, competed (and won), and senior team, which was amazing. Lukas had a team, which did well, and there was an amazing German team as well. The horse they brought was the top horse at WEG, I think. Something like that, anyway.

We had a great day watching the vaulting, hanging out with Dieter, meeting some people, and just having time to do whatever we wanted to! At 6, we met back up with Barbora who walked us into town to show us around a bit—she bought us delicious gelato, which we ate while walking through the park, and then took us out for a drink in the town square. It was a gorgeous evening and really nice to spend time walking around. Then we headed up to the flat she shares with her parents (though her mom was away), and met her dad, who teaches at the police academy. I’m quite sure I wouldn’t want to cross him, but he seemed very, very sweet, despite not speaking any English. He’d made us a lovely dinner of eggs and peppers and bread (and nothing sour!) and force-fed us a STRONG lemon liqueur, which I definitely only had half a sip of before passing it off to Barbora haha. He was very sweet and we had a nice chat via her translation.

We had an early sleep as I hadn’t slept at all, and we’d had limited access to being horizontal since leaving Latvia!

In the morning, we had to leave for work when she did, around 8:30, but she brought us Horalky, which are little sandwiches of wafer, peanut butter, and a bit of chocolate dipped around the outside, as well as pears, and then walked us back to the bus. It was very sweet! Turns out that she has been on couchsurfing for two years, but we were the first people she had been able to host, due to family/timing/etc., so I think she was pretty excited to have us. We had a great time with her!

Back in Bratislava, we headed off to a coffee shop so that I could work, and Cecilia explored Old Town a little bit on her own. At about 2, we got our bags from the hostel we had original stayed at and then walked over to meet our new Couchsurfing hosts, Peter and Peter. They were really sweet, with a flat right in the very centre, and are probably together though they wouldn’t cop to it, it was pretty cute. We dropped our bags off and checked in, and then headed back out for a walk. We went over the ‘new bridge’ to this fake beach on the banks of the Danube that T-Mobile is sponsoring. It’s pretty cool! They have clean white sand, bright pink beach chairs, snacks and a bar, playground, beach volleyball, futsal, hammocks and book cases under the trees…cool place!

After that, we walked back across the bridge and went up to the castle, which was very pretty but under construction, so we couldn’t go in. We walked around it and then found a little park where we started playing with handstands and things—of course. Back in town, we wandered through Old Town, stopped by an outdoor market, and then headed over to the Slovak Pub (“it’s not a pub, it’s an institution”) and had dinner there. We were after traditional Slovakian dumplings, which didn’t entirely turn out as we thought they would—they were small and there was a LOT of sheep cheese sauce, which was good, but we were expecting pierogies/pelmini more than gnocchi, which is sort of more what we got. The pub was funny and had one heck of a full menu, including a student’s menu, which was all but gruel and broth. It was a lot of bread and soup, actually. But if you get an A on an exam and bring it in, you get a free cola or soup or something.

Back at the boys’ flat, we chatted with them for a while, and in the course of planning what to do with our day the next day, realized that we were only 11Euro return (16$) and an hour away from Vienna, home to the Spanish Riding School, so we figured we better go do that. It’s pretty cool that you can just pop on a train and get to another country in an hour! What would have been cooler would be them giving us a platform number so that we didn’t miss our train, but in any case, after a short hour of waiting, we figured out where to go and headed to Austria. By this point we were clearly running late, so we jumped on a tram and headed over to the school. We got off quite a bit early, so ended up still having to do a fair amount of walking, but we got to the Palace complex about twenty minutes into the two-hour morning program, which wasn’t so bad. Unfortunately, the afternoon tours were sold out already, but we were able to watch an hour and a half of exercise set to music in the morning. The ring is absolutely gorgeous, and seems like it should be a ballroom, except there are high walls and a sand footing. Two levels of balcony were occupied by tons of tourists watching the training and enjoying the music, which was funny as I’m sure normally you couldn’t pay most of those people to spend two hours watching dressage.

We loved it, of course, especially Cecilia, who grew up hearing about the school and doing dressage. It was certainly a must-see for her. They divided training into thirty-minute chunks, with each section having 5-6 horses. Depending on the horse they all did individual workouts, which were efficient and included some airs above the ground, canter pirouettes, and other fun things as well as plenty of work on basics. The riders all wore funny full dress uniform, including cute little hats, but interestingly, seemed to use thin sticks as whips instead of dressage whips, which was interesting.

After the training, we walked over to Starbucks, which was really exciting because we hadn’t seen one since we left Canada. What wasn’t quite so exciting was spending $8.50 on my drink! Perhaps my only Starbucks visit of the trip!

Then it was time for lunch, and following that, a wander around. Since it was so last-minute, we hadn’t had a chance to look into Vienna at all, so just walked in the centre to see what we could see. The Stephensdom was amazing, an absolutely gorgeous cathedral! They were setting up for a Mozart concert in a few days, and had coloured plastic over the windows as well as theatre lights up, which combined to make quite a stunning effect in an already-gorgeous building. Of course, the outside was under construction, but it seemed the entire city was, really. At least they have building covers that look like what’s underneath, as opposed to plain white plastic. It’s much nicer that way.

After the cathedral we bought some postcards, walked through a gorgeous rose garden, tried to look at another cathedral (shut), and then headed into a McDonalds so that I could work for a few hours. It’s kind of funny here because McD’s are really nice, have proper cafes with blended coffee drinks, aircon, free wifi, and often-free toilets, so they are rapidly becoming our go-to ‘work/internet/snack’ stop.

After a few hours of that, we headed back to Bratislava, via another post card stop, a fountain, and an interesting sculpture that had music playing from it. It was a good handstand opportunity!

We were lucky to get a train fairly quickly and then headed back to town, walking back to the boys’ via old town, where we caught the tail end of an interesting dance/acrobatic performance to Bolero’s March. In the square, we also saw a bunch of 20-something guys wearing Canadian shirts and looking rather official, so we had to ask what they were up to. Turns out it is our national ball hockey team over here for a tournament. I think they were playing in the same rink as the one used for the IIHF Worlds earlier this year. They were nice and friendly and it was cool to meet some random Canadians.

We headed back to the flat and picked the boys up to go out for dinner, again at the Slovak Pub—we both wanted another go at our dumpling ordering. I got breaded, deep-fried pierogies, which wasn’t entirely what I expected, but they were great!

After dinner, they took us to a wine bar so that Cecilia could sample some local, Slovakian wine. By this point, it was after 10, and we were hot and full, and therefore I could barely keep my eyes open. It was a bit of a problem. We made it back to the flat, though, and fell into bed with another early morning ahead of us.

The next day (Wednesday, I think), we had to leave when they did—around 8:30—so it was back to McD’s for a couple hours of work before our 11am bus. This trip went much better, and we spent the morning enjoying the free cappuccino, leather seats, and English channel playing ‘It’s Complicated,’ one of my favorite romantic comedies from the past decade. When I grow up, I’m going to be Meryl Streep, I’ve decided. <3 her.

In Budapest, we left our bags in the luggage check, got some cash, bought 72-hour transit passes, picked a station that looked like it was in the middle of town, and headed out. Turns out we had mis-judged by one station, so we popped out not entirely sure where we were, but we found a hostel where we got a free map and directions to McD’s (are you seeing a pattern here?) and went down there for lunch (Tzatski wraps, a Hungarian specialty, apparently) and work time.

Thus fortified, we headed off to St. Stephan’s Basilica, an absolutely massive cathedral capable of holding 8,500 people (though that must be an incredibly tight fit!). We climbed its tower and got some great views of the city, and then checked out the inside, which is beautiful and ornate. After that, we walked over to the Parliament buildings, which are right on the river and also gorgeous, and then took a tram to the ‘green bridge,’ which we walked across to see what was what. We happened to find a church built into the mountain, and though we didn’t have time to go in, it was cool just to poke our heads into the visitor’s centre, anyway. Cecilia had got a tiny cut from doing a handstand and meeting up with some glass, but they had iodine and bandaids and a sweet guy that spoke English, so she was well taken care of. By this point it was time to head back to the bus station and meet our new Couch surfing host (what a great idea, this is!), Frederika. She was there with her boyfriend Peter, and they had a car, which was handy with all of our stuff. Both of them were also very nice, and we headed back to her very cute flat just outside the city. They fed us a lovely dinner including an egg thing that goes on crepes (which she made with chestnut flour, which was cool), a lovely huge salad, and yummy bread. Mmmm fresh food haha.

We originally thought we were going to sleep in the next morning, but realized that was never going to work if we wanted to get our to-do list accomplished, so…We left the house around 8:30 and I did a couple of hours of work, before we headed off to some Turkish-style baths, a tradition Budapest is known for. We went to Schenzyi (or something along those lines), one of the biggest bathing complexes in Europe. With three huge outdoor pools, 20 or so indoor pools, a hotel, cafes, massage places, saunas, etc., I can that it might be! It was a pretty grand old place, built around the turn of the (past) century, I think, and a pretty cool place to spend the morning, even if it was a bit ridiculous to be going in the hot pools when it was 35C outside. We worked on our flexibility a bit though, which was desperately needed given all the working, walking, and sitting we’ve been doing, without stretching much since we left home. Oh dear.

After the baths, we headed to subway for lunch, and then embarked on an epic transit adventure. First, we took a tram to a cog railway line, which we rode from end to end up through the Buda hills. It was a gorgeous green ride, and a pretty cool form of public transit. After that, we walked over to the Children’s Railway, which was super cute. Apparently popular in the Soviet Era, children’s railways give kids the chance to run a small railway, with adult supervision. It’s a little locomotive that travels a relatively good distance, and while adults are actually the ones driving, the kids sell and take tickets, run the switches, make the announcements, do the conducting, and various other jobs. It’s pretty cool, and apparently fairly hard to get into. There is also a four-month initial training program and then yearly recertification, and during the school year, railway ‘employees’ get one day off from school every 15 days in order to work the rails. Cecilia has decided that she wishes she was a small Hungarian child who could work as a conductor.

After our ride on the rails, we hiked for 15 or 20 minutes up a shaded hill to Elizabeth’s Tower, which wasn’t too tall, but on the top of the top of a hill, as it was, still afforded a great view of the city. We randomly decided to practice handstands there, and then walked down to the chair lift, which was going to get us off the mountain. It was pretty fun to step onto a chairlift without skis or boards, though we were glad to have lots of lift experience back home. Cecilia was a little worried about losing her flip flops, but overall we enjoyed our fifteen-minute offload down the mountain, which featured some views of the city and nice cool trees. We found a bus, then took a tram, then a metro, and eventually ended up back in the centre, where I worked for a couple of hours, and we met up with Frederika. She took us to a very cool hostel, which is in an old apartment block built around a square. The square, which is very garden-like, is now home to a cute bar, and we had a couple of drinks with her and her friend Laszlo, and also ate dinner under the trees. He’s a nice guy that works for Apple, and has a friend from Germany that just moved to Canada—to Victoria, actually, and has a job with one of the whale watching companies. Small world!

We headed back to the flat after that for some very exciting clothes washing. Sadly, it was the first time since leaving Iceland a month ago that we had managed to find a washer! We did all our laundry and fell asleep, deciding to use the next day as a sleep-in one. We left the flat around 11 and headed into town for an early lunch and work, and then bought our bus tickets for the next day to Prague, as well as going to a funny second hand shop so that Cecilia could try, and then buy, a lovely blue dress hanging in the window. We saw lots of great clothes, but they were typically one size wrong in either diection—very frustrating! We then went to a huge marketplace near the centre. We got our patches and a few little souvenirs, and dinner, and decided that instead of going to the night at the museums, which was our original plan, we would climb up to the top of a small mountain near castle hill instead. We found a pretty cool statue of a woman to take photos by and some lovely city views.

After that, we climbed back down, and paused half-way to take some photos. I wanted to do a handstand on a bench, so that you could see the city, instead of the railing, behind me. There were some Chinese tourists around, but also a woman who gestured to me, gestured to her parents, and then said something about a shashin (photo), so I knew they were Japanese. I said sumimasen (excuse me), which they didn’t really seem to notice, and then did my handstand and got my photo. They, not so surprisingly, wanted to get a photo of me doing my handstand, and were then pretty shocked when I asked them in Japanese if the place was OK and if their photos were OK or if they wanted another one. They were really sweet and from Shinjuku. We had a brief, not very fluent conversation in Japanese where they asked me where we were from, if I’d been to Japan, how long I’d lived there for, where, what I was doing, etc. It was nice J How funny to speak Japanese on a hill in Budapest!

Back at the bottom, we found the funicular, which was cool to watch go up and down the tracks, and then stumbled upon the Duna Party, which, as far as we could tell, was some kind of concert/dance thing. It was rather bizarre, though there was a cool shooplatla (sp?)-related dance with lots of men hopping around and hitting their legs and shoes for the sound.

We walked back over the bridge, ended up in the shopping district, and tried on some clothes, which was fun, before having a nightly rest stop/internet check (no internet at the flat), and heading back for around 11. It was quite funny, as Frederika was away as of Friday morning, but left us to our own devices in her flat, and left us with a key to have. It was quite lovely, really.

By the time we showered and packed all of our lovely clean clothes, it was 2am and bed time! This morning (yay, I’m finally caught up!!) We got up early, took a bus and a metro to the main bus station, and got on our bright yellow Student Agency bus at 9:15am. It generally seems to be a good company with free hot drinks and decent movies, and cheap tickets (25$ to go from Budapest to Prague, an 8 hour trip), so if you’re looking to travel around Europe….

Right now, we’re somewhere just outside of Bratislava, off to Prague, where we’ll meet Dieter and settle into our new digs. It’s Cecilia’s last city already! L

I’ll try and keep going without being quite so long between posts next time. No more novels!



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