Vat is you inch?

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

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

In just a few weeks I've gone from 122 degrees in Kuwait to 90 in Bangkok to 70 in Australia and now to 45 and rain in Slovakia.  My backpack is full of summer clothes and despite the rain, cold, and wrong clothes, I am having a really good time and am so glad I veered off course and found this place.  Or maybe I should say Ryanair found another winner for me.   Last night I was talking to the guy I met from Porto and found out why the historic district there is a little rough around the edges so here goes...

...The United Nations named it a World Heritage Site and as such a building's interior or exterior cannot be modified at all without a ton of governmental red tape.  People can't even replace a tile that has fallen off without a mountain of paperwork and something as simple as installing a new toilet cannot be done without goverment approval even though that toilet does nothing to change the exterior look of the building.  So the very act that is supposed to preserve these buildings just causes them to fall further apart since people avoid the hassles of dealing with the man.  Come to think of it, I've been to other United Nations World Heritage Sites and they all seem to be the same as Porto.  Nice job there UN!!

Now back to Bratislava and the cold rain.  Not wanting to risk getting stuck here tonight (not that it would be a bad thing), I headed to the train station early this morning with my Porto buddy to see about buying a train ticket to Krakow for tonight.  We bought tram tickets to the train station by showing a lady at a newspaper stand our old ones from last night and that got us started on our way.  Somehow we caught the right tram but with no clue whatsoever how far to ride it.  Following a guy with a suitcase turned out to be the correct ticket to the central station.  Things we take for granted at home like riding public transportation are a source of both frustration and a lot of fun overseas.  And speaking of tickets, the hard part now was finding the international ticket counter and buying one.

I navigated around the usual train station assortment of bums and junkies up to a young girl behind some thick glass and asked her if she spoke English or German.  To my relief she said she could speak English and I asked her for a ticket to Krakow.  Her response of one way or return brought me high hopes that this would be an easy transaction since she seemed to know exactly what I wanted.  That will be one way please and her next question sounded like "Vat is you inch?"  I had no clue what that meant so I put my ear right up to the hole in the glass and asked her to repeat it.  It was indeed "Vat is you inch," and I was absolutely stumped as was everyone else in line. 

At this point I was holding up the line and she kept asking the same question over and over.  Finally she shoved a piece of paper through the slot with 23 written on the top and 26 right below it.  Pointing to the 23 she said "I am inch," and then put her finger on the 26 and pointed at me.  Maybe this was the price of the ticket in Euros and I was supposed to add it up and pay up.  So I put 49 Euros through the slot and she shook her head and said "inch, inch."  Ok, this was starting to wear me out.  All I wanted was a one way ticket to Krakow.

It finally dawned on me that she was asking "What is your age" and that she was 23 and wanted to know if I am older than 26 since that is the cutoff for reduced fares.  Pointing to her age was the only way she knew to prompt me to give mine.  I wrote down 37 and pushed the paper back towards her and a few seconds later I was very relieved to hear the ticket printing.   Not wanting her to feel bad I told her my English was not so good and she smiled and said neither was hers.  I could tell she was embarrassed though because everyone in line was laughing at this exchange. 

With my ticket in hand and ready to tell anyone else who asks that my "inch" is 37,  I set out to explore the old town in the rain.  Imagine cobblestone streets and old buildings in different pastel hues like green, light red, and light blue.  It's not the biggest area in the world but it was enough to nicely fill a few hours.   A giant castle looms over the city and it looked like it would be a pretty decent place to kill another hour or two so I set off to find it.

Well, that journey came to an abrubt end in about three blocks when I got to the edge of old town and a fence and four lane divided road blocked my way.  There the castle was high above me but I was as clueless as how to get there as I was earlier at the train station trying to buy a ticket.  I ended up walking about a mile and a half around the edge of the old town to a bridge over this road and made my way up the hill in now heavy rain.  It really didn't matter since I was having such a good time already here.

All I saw at the castle was a glass exhibit hall and I figured that had to be the ticket counter area.   A total lack of people there surprised me and I thanked the rain for driving the crowds away.  It looked like the whole place was all mine.  An older woman waved me in and I asked her if she spoke German or English and she was quick to say no.  But she did point me to the exhibit outlining Slovakian history and not wanting to be rude I walked around looking at the displays to humor her.

All this time I had been wondering how this city just over a mile from the Austrian border has an absolute lack of German or English speaking people and the exhibit clued me in.  Decades of Soviet influence turned Czechoslovakia eastward to the former USSR and the border with German speaking people on the other side of it may as well have been a million miles away.  In 1989 when the iron curtain fell, Slovakia broke off from Czechoslovakia and young people are just now starting to learn English in the schools.  Even though it's been independent for almost 20 years now I am constantly reminded of its Soviet heritage in most of the utilitarian looking buildings here and definitely the ancient streetcars. 

When I was done glancing at the displays I asked her how to get into the castle by just asking "hrad?" which means castle.  She said "closed" and I was starting to curse my bad luck.  I had walked 20 minutes up this hill in the rain only to find the castle was closed, and my one word of Czech and her one word of English added up to some big disappointment for me.  She must have sensed that because she came out from behind her desk, grabbed my sleeve and said three times "exposition" and pointed me further up the hill.  Great, the castle was closed for some kind of convention on the one day I am here in town.

With nothing else to do I walked up the hill and trust me, if I knew how to say the f word in Czech I would have shouted it from up there for all of Bratislava to hear.  It dawned on me that exposition was her word for the walkway that overlooked the Danube and the old town, and I am now getting pretty good at mastering Slovakenglish by the way.  That amazing view more than made up for the castle being closed and a huge sign even stated it was closed until next year for renovations.  How I missed that on the way up I have no clue and that explained the lack of people making the trek with me.

The food is right up my alley as well.  The Slovakians have a delicious breakfast pastry that is the same bread
as a croissant but filled with cheese, bacon, sauteed mushrooms and some tomato sauce.  The fresh out of the oven one I picked up at a bakery was out of this world.  I had my usual döner kebab and orange soda for lunch and was absolutely amazed at how cheap Bratislava is...another great reason for veering off course from Italy and heading here.

I've got the whole afternoon to lounge around, eat some more and do some exploration in the rain.  I've got a 9 hour overnight train booked to Krakow, Poland that leaves around 10pm and that will be my hotel for the night.  I arrive there at 6am so that's well before sunrise.  I am a huge fan of Eastern Europe because a lot of it is just so untouched by all the mainstream tourists and these places require some digging to find the best sights.  I am having a great time being somewhere I have no clue how to communicate in or find my way around through.  That's what makes travel so fun for me.  And maybe the train is a little more comfortable than those hard as rock Ryanair seats with no recline I am getting to know so well.
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