It’s a drizzly, cold, grey evening in Vienna, Austria. I’m on a bus, working its way from the airport through a traffic-ridden city to one of the central train stations, Westbanhof. As the bus finally breaks free of the last of the gridlocked red lights, I see an expectant Christian and Susanne waiting across the street. Both have big smiles, and after a round of greetings and hugs, Chris hands me a tall can. “Welcome to Vienna!”
Chris and Susie are one of those fun, carefree, easy-and-enjoyable-to-be-around couples that you meet in life. I met them, completely randomly, during an evening out in Krabi, Thailand six months prior. At the time, I was eating dinner alone at an outside market, and, after sitting down at the same table, Chris and Susie offered to share one of their beers. The rest is history. The three of us made instant friends, and ended up going on a number of Thai adventures together before parting ways. On the last day in Thailand, they invited me to visit them should I pass through Vienna. And so, six months later, here I am!
After a quick stop at their apartment, the three of us head back out into the chilly, but not quite winter-esque Viennese September night for dinner. Public transportation means are readily available, but, why not walk?
The light drizzle makes it feel almost as though we have the entire city to ourselves, with empty streets and glistening sidewalks. We pass by the parliament building, the capital, the famous, towering central church. Through the cobblestones of the old city, we make our way to a quality restaurant establishment: Something-Or-Other in Austrian German. The order, all-around: Schnitzel! Out come three large, plate-sized breaded schnitzels accompanied by three draft beers. The culinary delights of Austria and Germany don’t rival those of their neighbors to the south, but you know what? The food was darn tasty.
Over the next few days I get one-on-one time with both Chris and Susie, as their work schedules allow. Chris takes me on a walking tour of the city one morning, and we admire the various sights from atop the austere Justizia court building. Susie takes me on a bicycle tour of the city, starting with the lovely Schönbrunn palace, the surrounding garden, and then onto the Opera house and city center.
As with all things, time was limited. The days were brief, but fun. It’s a lovely thing to meet fun, kind people, to go about your lives, and meet them again down the road.
The city is old, but doesn’t quite feel ancient. It’s organized, but sometimes hodge-podge. The buildings are strong, but frank, open, even friendly; perhaps a mix of the city’s Austrian and older roots.
There’s a fallen grace to the place–a veneration of better times, a remembrance of a stronger empire, a proud, old man whose hollow muscles no longer hold the power they once knew in his youth.
The streets, the buildings, the bridges, the trees all harken back to a time in the past, when things were grander, more opulent, more proud, and perhaps more simple.
But, despite all this, the city has spirit. The buses crowd with people going about their daily routine. Young people congregate in the parks. Businessmen meet for drinks after work. An old, partially blind grandma on the street sells me tiny knitted socks, made of her own sweat and passion and time. “I will not go quietly into that dark night.” The guttural heart continues to pump, onward and forward, strong and proud to be alive.
My grandmother is fully Hungarian, so visiting Budapest is a small, special mission of mine. I’m happy I visited. There is something oddly calming, comfortable about the city.
I visit the sights. I see castles, churches, statues, bridges. I sit and marvel at the architecture of parliament. I soak into the warm thermal baths of an opulent Turkish bathhouse. I climb the steps to monuments, and drink deeply from the city fountains. I walk. I tread the cobblestones of an older, foreign city that somehow doesn’t seem so foreign. I stare into the depths of the Danube, and feel its magnetic pull, like an old, soulful friend inviting me to calm my weary, hot bones in the depths of her cool waters.
Some places in my travels–many, in fact–I just pass through. I enjoy my time, I meet nice people, I create fond memories, but I don’t leave much of myself behind, nor do I take so much with me.
Every place I visit imprints memories into my mind. But, only some imprint memories onto my heart.
Although I didn’t do anything grand, or crazy, or exciting, or profound, Budapest sticks with me.
Grandma, for what it’s worth, Budapest is a very special place.
“Nick, you and I are so different! When you think about travel, your first thoughts are ‘where will I go?’ or ‘what will I do?’ or ‘how will I plan this trip logistically?”
“My first question, in contrast,” said a friend, “is ‘who will I go with?'”
My friend mentioned this observation to me while chatting about our own respective travels a few weeks back.
The distinction is subtle, but true. I chose to do this trip around the world alone.
There are characters that weave in and out of the adventure, that travel with me for a time, but at it’s very heart, this is a solo journey. As with life.
That being said, as also with life, some of the funnest and most beautiful moments on this journey are those I share with others.
This past week I visited Stockholm, Sweden. Now Sweden is awesome, and I’ve always been curious to visit, but the driving factor for this excursion was the “who.”
And, waiting for me on the arrival train platform in Stockholm was my good friend from university, Magnus.
Eight years ago, both Magnus and I studied together in Italy for one year as foreign exchange students. At the time, although we came from different backgrounds and countries, we quickly became friends. While not studying economics, we would drink espresso, appreciate the local culture, and explore the town, and chat about life.
I haven’t seen Magnus or his girlfriend Sini in eight years, but I wanted to make it a point to visit. And I’m sure happy I did.
After a cheerful reunion at the train station, the three of us spent more or less an entire week together, going out to eat, exploring museums and sites around Stockholm, shopping, making dinner, and even playing hockey with a group of Magnus’s pals.
Since Magnus and Sini both have different work schedules during the day, I was able to have good amounts of time to spend with only Sini, with only Magnus, with both of them together, and also alone. Magnus and I chatted about the past, the years that have elapsed since our university days, the present life, and thoughts for the future. I got to know Sini much better, as I had only met her briefly eight years ago, and appreciated her insightful and lovely personality.
I’ll let the photos tell the stories, but the Stockholm excursions included a 400 year-old wooden ship, risen from the dead depths of the Stockholm channel, a 100 year-old Byzantine-stile mosaic city hall room, rather haphazardly designed by a 28 year-old artist at the time, and a lovely Saturday ferry ride through the Stockholm islands.
This last excursion left a lovely imprint on my memory. The three of us took a two hour ferry to a small, extremely Swedish island, where maybe 500 people live. A bright, coldly crisp sun smiled down on us while we ate fresh pastries and coffee at the island’s only bakery. We picked blueberries from the wild forest, and admired the Swedish sail boats and summer cabins. I nearly took an unintentional swim while climbing around sea rocks. The three of us chatted about our lives, the big things, the little things, thoughts and ideas, worries and joys. It was one of those outings that puts the soul at peace.
The where, why, and hows of a trip are extremely important. True.
But, sometimes the “who”s leave a lasting imprint, and help transform a trip into a journey.