My own tale of two cities

Trip Start Aug 25, 2008
Trip End Oct 17, 2008

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Flag of Slovakia  , Bratislava,
Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Three subways, 35 minutes and one attempted pickpocketing later, I was finally at the airport close to getting out of Dodge.  A giant mass of humanity was all smashed up against what looked like a Ryanair ticket counter and I got myself mentally prepared for my two Ryanair flights today. 

The line actually moved pretty quickly since all a Ryanair check in involves is finding the passenger's name on a printed list, crossing it off and handwriting the name on a preprinted boarding card from a giant stack on the counter.  And they want to charge €5 for this 20 second transaction.  My turn finally approached and the first nice person I had found so far in Madrid greeted me with a smile, waived the check in fee and wished me a pleasant flight.  Maybe there is hope for Spain after all.

In the gate I found myself smack dab in the middle of about 8 Germans commiserating together about their experiences in Madrid.  I struck up a conversation with one of the ladies and she volunteered that the people in Spain seemed to be the most arrogant, stuck up people she has ever encountered.  Her husband told me their three days there were three days too many, and I felt sort of relieved that other people were getting the same impression.  So it's definitely not me just having a bad attitude.

That got me to thinking about last night when I was trying to fall asleep in a lumpy bed under a squeaky ceiling fan above a really noisy street.  It's not like the heavens came down and touched me or anything but a light besides the one shining right in my eyes from the street came on in my head and I realized finally what it was about Madrid that had let me down along with those American college girls and my new German friends.  It's my own tale of two cities--Paris vs. Madrid.

You see, walking around Paris is a cultural feast for the eyes.  The beautiful architecture, tree and cafe lined streets and just the vibe the place gave off made miles and miles of walking seem like a few short blocks.  Even the store fronts were works of art with the most magnificently arranged displays of pastries, meats, cheeses, or whatever else that made me slow down to enjoy  the Parisian art of fine living.  I would look at my watch and two more hours had vanished quickly.

In Madrid outside seems to be just a place used to get from point A to point B.  The streets lack any greenery or even the simplest anything that would have caused me to slow down and enjoy a walk.  Midday in Madrid is the siesta and so prime exploration time for me just brought blocks and blocks of closed stores hidden behind steel grates and graffiti.  And when the stores are open the displays are just junk stacked behind dirty windows.  I know I knock on Delhi a lot but even it had a unique street life that beckoned me outdoors to soak up its uniqueness. 

A two hour experience only Ryanair could provide brought me to "Frankfurt" in Ryanair speak, but in the real world I had landed in Hahn which is over 100 km from the city it is advertised as.  No matter where I was, liberating is the word I would use to describe how it felt to be in a place where I could finally read, speak and totally understand the language and maneuver through the cultural nuances without so much as a hiccup.  With two hours to kill before another Ryanair style check in for Bratislava, I bought a doner kebab, some fries and a half liter size beer and ate it outside on the observation deck under a typical cloudy 45 degree sky.  Watching a steady stream of Ryanair 737s come in, unload 190 people, reload and take off within 25 minutes each was the perfect afternoon for me. 

I am so glad that I had changed my plans from Milan to Bratislava and that quick stop in Frankfurt or Hahn or whatever you want to call it was like a booster shot that totally cleaned the Madrid malaise right out of me.  I really feel like I am back on track again and it turned out to be one of the smartest travel decisions I have made on this trip.

Oh yeah, before I forget, I should mention that the Germans have an absolute love affair with rules and bureaucracy so the extremely humorless check in frau forced me to pay the €5 fee for my 20 second interaction with her.  She asked me why Americans seem so upset to have to pay it since rules are rules.  Gee, I wonder why.  I am glad I had cash on me, too because Ryanair charges another €5 fee to use a credit card.  At least the flight was dirt cheap and €5 was a small price to pay for getting on with my adventure.

I had no idea what I was going to do for accommodations or anything once I got into Bratislava tonight.  All I knew is that there was a bus from the airport that intersected with a tram line at some point that would take me further into the city.  Having no clue how to buy a ticket for the bus I wandered up to the lady at the currency exchange desk and asked her, and lucky for me she had tickets for sale for €1.  Right after she sold it to me she closed down for the night since it was 10pm.  Everyone else in line was just out of luck unless they could find exact change.

About a third of the plane had the same idea to head into town by bus and I met a guy from Porto of all places who was headed to a hostel.  I decided that was as good a place as any to stay and we found our way there with his confusing directions from the internet.  Somehow, and I have no clue how, we managed to get off the bus at the right stop, and then two helpful Slovakian guys from the plane pointed us in the direction of the #14 tram. We then discovered that the tram we were waiting for would be the last one for the night from that stop.  Talk about timing.  A German couple asked me how to buy tickets and I somehow must have convinced them that I was an authentic German speaking Slovakian with my explanation because he told his wife how helpful the natives here are and that we speak pretty decent German. 

Three stops later on an ancient and decrepit Soviet era tram, we were at this pretty nice hostel and so here I am now writing this.  Sometimes the best times traveling are those days like today when you wake up with a new destination in mind but have no clue how you are getting there, no clue where you are staying once there and no clue how to even find your way around the place.  I arrived at 10pm in a place with a strange language and still with some evidence of the old Soviet style and feel totally in my element in a place off the beaten path.  This is going to be a great place to explore.  What a difference a day makes. 
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