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From Austria (Vienna), Slovakia (Bratislava), Germany (Berlin)

By Sahand Rabbani

from Vienna: Two wrongs make a right

Dear Friends,

I was not barely in Austria, my first long-term stop, that I made a classic touristic mistake. Indeed, in my undue haste and confidence, I had forgotten that I do not speak an ounce of German. This fact was relayed to me by the City-Airport Train (CAT) ticket vending machine at the Vienna airport. The CAT, evident in its name, is a modern high-speed train that bridges Vienna's airport and the city zentrum (center) in a well advertised sixteen minutes.

Departing airport customs, I followed signs to the train tickets, coming upon two sophisticated machines that boasted the ability to accept credit cards. Indeed, I had no euros, and with memories of enormous transaction fees from debit withdrawals I had made in Prague a year earlier, I figured that the three-percent commission on the credit card was my best bet at the time.

So I swiped my card through German screens to no avail. I then returned to the main screen and started again in English, repeating the same motions. The final screen, whose German version I had just seen, instructed me to pick up my ticket below. Only then did I notice the two(!) tickets deposited at the bottom of the machine. A large digital billboard announced that the next train was to leave in one minute.

There I was, nine euros in deeper than I wanted to be with two train tickets but only one man. The problem was only as big as I made it, though, and as I am wont to do, I decided I'd give up the half hour until the next train to chase the euros and test the retail value of second-hand CAT tickets while risking a run-in with whatever transit ticket resale laws were on the Austrian books. (I recall New York's MTA advertisements that read, "It's illegal -- anyway you swipe it.")

I must have waited for fifteen minutes, watching scores of people emerging from customs, greeted by friends and family and private drivers and other non-train modes of transport, but not a single person even gave this CAT vendor a serious glance. I started to doubt myself and this train altogether, considering especially that I had gone from airport to city in Prague for under a (US) dollar the previous year. If so few people are using this train, perhaps there is a problem, I thought to myself.

Eventually and to my delight, a young short-haired man of olive complexion came to converse with the machine. I intercepted his finger, which he had extended out to initiate exchange.

"Do you speak English?" I asked.

He looked at me. "Yes," he responded. I did not immediately place his accent.

"I bought two tickets right now by accident," I explained. "I can give you one for five euros."

"How much is it?"

"The tickets here cost nine," I said, "but I will give you this one for five."

He produced a fifty-euro bill. "Do you have change?"

Of course, I was sans euro altogether, so we tried our luck at a few shops before he broke his fifty into two twenties and a ten.

"Take ten," he said, handing me the bill.

"But I only need five," I said. "The machine costs nine."

"It's the same to me."

"At least let me buy you a coffee then," I said.

And so I ordered an espresso and he a latte. We chatted for the remaining fiteen minutes before the next train. I learned that this generous and gregarious man was named Tomer. He was Israeli, though he had once lived in Vienna. He was involved in some sort of jewelry business that had him traveling often. I told him about my impending trip. He said he wished that he had done something similar when he had had the time, but now with a two-year-old child and another on the way, even the shorter business trips were too much. In the end, Tomer did not let me pay for the coffee. We chatted another sixteen minutes on the train, exchanged email addresses, and parted ways. I now have a restaurant suggestion from this kind man in my inbox.

Until next time.


from Slovakia (Bratislava), Austria (Vienna II), Germany (Berlin)

Dear Friends,

I write to you at a few minutes past midnight in Berlin's Alexanderplatz station, awaiting the next eastbound U-bahn (subway) train to arrive in eleven minutes, according to the electronic display.

But before I write on this evening, I must report briefly on a previous destination: Bratislava, the capital of the Slovak Republic. An hour from Vienna and right on the Austrian-Slovak border, Bratislava is a convenient day-trip for a vehicle-endowed Wiener (Viennese person). The colorful facades of the old buildings in the historic town center provide a scenic theater for the customers of the outdoor cafes. Bratislava is a quiet town, and its pretty parts, like those of most historical cities, contain more foreigners than they do natives, so my lack of any knowledge of the Slovak language did not disadvantage me. At the town's highest point is a majestic castle that overlooks the old and new town alike. Perhaps it was because I visited on a Sunday that the entire modern part of city was silent, a shell of a quintessentially Eastern European town with light colors forming a pastel mosaic of buildings, roads, and billboards--a frightening dearth of vowels. Overall, Bratislava is a great city for a day's excursion.

Here I must depart from my descriptions of the towns to address a recent realization. I must also apologize in advance for the subject of this realization, and I only hope that its anthropological component will forgive my impropriety. To begin, you are likely familiar with the term "Frankfurter," a noun referring to a resident of Frankfurt and a mode of sausage presumably popularized by this same city. You may know, though I did not until recently, that a resident of the city of Vienna, Wien (pronounced VEEN) in German, is referred to in the native Austrian tongue of German as a Wiener, with the -er suffix operating in much the same way as it does in Frankfurt(er). Now, Wiener, like its counterpart Frankfurter, is also used to refer to a sausage presumably native to the city of Wien. We can extrapolate, further, that the term "wiener," as popularized in the English-speaking world as a slang term for the male member, inherits its force from the phallic and meaty appearance of the incidentally ruddier Wiener sausage, as contrasted to other variations on the sausage theme with lighter and less human complexions. This fact, combined with the relative compactness of the word "Wiener" as compared to "Frankfurter," makes the word an ideal candidate for the slang term. We conclude, therefore, that the slang term "wiener" ultimately derives from the attributive form of the city of Vienna, an unfortunate etymology that elicits our sympathy for this great Austrian capital.

I return, now, to my current location. Berlin is a modern city with a clean, efficient, and extensive train system. It is the culmination of German industrialism and technology. But amid the electronic billboards with dynamic information about the next bus and the sea of cutting-edge BMWs and Audis, we find the residues of a bittersweet German past. Beautifully graffitied fragments of the Berlin Wall still stand, serving as a reminder of the city's division, the former Soviet quarter still adorned with Eastern monuments. Berlin, in fact, has a unique artistic wall culture that extends beyond the intricate paintings on the Berliner Mauer. Sides of buildings feature hyper-life-sized portraits of both familiar and anonymous faces. One such painting asks in English, "How long is now?" It is this esoteric mentality that gives the city its cosmopolitan feel.

While in Germany, I acquired a SIM card and I now have a functioning German cell phone. This has allowed me to get in touch with some Stanford-in-Berliners during my visit, whence I got wind of the festivities from which I return tonight. I will use the phone again when I return to Germany at the end of my trip.

By the time that I am finishing this message, I am in Berlin's Tegel airport awaiting the first leg of my flight back to San Francisco. By the time that you receive it, I am at Stanford.

Next stop: Istanbul.


Copyright © 2024 Sahand Rabbani
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