Tag Archives: Vienna

Schnitzel, Beer and Peace

Another “Blast from the Past” type post and this one actually continues from the post “Barter Trade“.

It was 1983 and I spent that summer backpacking and train jumping through Europe.  I had traveled as far north as Bergen, Norway and  as far east as Plitvice Lakes in the then Yugoslavia.  Now returning from Yugoslavia, I made my way to Vienna and Salzburg in Austria.  On the train, I met up with Kate, an Aussie “sheila” (Aussie slang for “woman/girl”) who was also traveling alone.

Our timing was not great though.  Pope John Paul II was due to visit Vienna on a four day trip starting on the 10th of September.  Although we were there almost a week ahead, accommodation of all types were already hard to find due to the large influx of Catholic faithful and pilgrims.  In fact the first morning there was spent entirely on trying to find accommodation for the next three days.  In the end, we had to stay in different places on each of those days, moving from one place to another.  The one positive thing was that in the midst of the accommodation hunting, we hooked up with Gai, another Aussie Sheila.

And so we spent most of the next three days exploring Vienna as an unlikely trio.  We made a good team. Kate could be counted on to find great shopping, Gai was an expert at finding coffee and cakes and I was the only one who could actually read a map and navigate to the sights.

Still, it was sometimes the case of the blind leading the blind.  One evening, after sight seeing, we found ourselves in a working class part of town and with the intent of escaping the tourist traps and finding “authentic” Vienna, we ended up in one we surmised to be the local “dive”.  It was a sort of neighborhood pub that also served traditional Austrian food like the famous Vienna Schnitzel (an escalope of veal or pork which is covered with breadcrumbs and fried).

Anyway, we were enjoying our meal and quaffing our local beers and although some of the crowd in the bar looked a bit rough and ready, they kept to themselves and did not bother us.  Of course, I wasn’t expecting anyone to bother me but it would not have been unforeseen for someone to hit on my two attractive traveling companions.

What was totally unforeseen however was what happened next.  An elderly man got up from where he had been sitting alone.  He looked frail and very dependent on his walking stick for support.  Yet when he came near our table, he seemed to be empowered with excitement and fervour and proceeded to use his heavy wooden walking stick to prod me in the ribs.  At the same time, his eyes seem bright with passion as he asked us in a surprisingly strong voice, “Hitler …… gud,ya!?!?”

I was shocked by the walking stick in my ribs and further confused by what he had said.  Was he asking a question or making a statement?  My first natural reaction was to look blankly like a squirrel caught in the headlights of a car.  He persisted with another painful nudge in my ribs.  He stood there quivering with emotion and asked in a louder but cracked voice, “Hitler ……GUD, ya!?!”

The girls kept quiet and so it was left to me to respond.  I looked around the bar, there were a lot of large, Teutonic giants looking back at us.  It was 1983.  The Second World War had ended 38 years ago.  Nazism was a thing of the past, right?  Yet, sitting there in that bar, it did not feel so.  I felt like a dumb lamb in a den of wolves.

Not being the hero type ……..uh, I mean  to say that I was not willing to endanger my female companions.  Yes, that’s what I mean.  Yeah.  Anyway, I decided to take the Chamberlain approach and made a wishy-washy gesture of appeasement.  I looked the old codger in the eye  and bravely said, “Hitler ……sometimes good but sometimes bad.”

Yes, yes, I know.  What a cowardly cop out but I wasn’t up to having my head bashed in.  Anyway, the man just stood there looking at us as we hurriedly paid our bills and scooted out of that establishment into the relative safety of the dark streets.

Until now I am uncertain if that man was truly a fervent Nazi supporter or was he just testing us or was he just a screw loose.  I’d like to think that a minute after we skedaddled out of there, the whole bar burst out in laughter and congratulated  Old Kurt for playing that practical joke on yet another gang of gullible tourists.  Perhaps behind the bar or on the men’s room door, another stick man is etched into the wood.  Just a couple more and Old Kurt would have shot down twenty tourists.

Kate Doing the Tourist Thing on the Steps of the Belvedere Gallery
The View of Belvedere Gardens that Kate was Trying to Take
A Traditional Bavarian Family Outing on a Sunday
Pretty Bavarian Girls in Traditional Outfits

Barter Trade

PhotoCredit:- Kate by LGS

The train journey out of Yugoslavia was interesting in its own right even though it lacked the drama of my train journey into that country just a few days earlier. As I boarded the train at the Zagreb station at eleven at night, I had used up almost all my local currency earlier. I was quite hungry as I had not eaten since morning but with the last of my local currency I bought a bottle of water as I decided thirst was even harder to ignore than hunger pangs.

When finally the train pulled out of the station on its way to Austria, I found myself alone with an attractive Aussie backpacker in the train compartment. Strange as it may seem, I was however, more distracted by the sight and smell of the doner kebab that she was eating. We exchanged pleasantries and I learned that her name was Kate. After a short conversation during which she had made no offer of sharing the doner kebab with me, I decided to excuse myself and to try to put the gnawing hunger out of my mind by catching some shut-eye. Not an easy task as visions of food danced before me.

Not long after, a uniformed soldier with a rifle came into the compartment and sat next to me. As I did not have a pleasant experience with soldiers on my way into Yugoslavia, you will forgive me if I was a little alarmed at his presence. However, he seemed friendly enough, flashing a smile at both Kate and I. He had stored his kit bag away so it seemed he would be our companion for the journey.

He said something to Kate in what must have been Serbian. Kate just shrugged her shoulders to indicate that she didn’t understand and went back to her book that she was reading. The soldier tried a few times but got nowhere with Kate.

The compartment settled down to some quiet with only the sound of the train on the tracks and the passing wind to be heard. I was actually about to nod off when suddenly I felt the soldier prodding me. I open my eyes to see a smiling face but I couldn’t comprehend what was happening.

He said something to me in Serbian. I shrugged. He pointed at my backpack. I followed his gaze and realised that he was pointing at a little white book that I had in my backpack’s side pocket. It was in fact a small travelers’ phase book for the Balkans which had English, Serbian and Italian phrases alongside one another.

I took it out of the pocket and showed it to him. He was delighted. His eyes lit up as he opened the book. He scrutinised it for awhile and then he pointed to the book.
I looked and his finger was showing me the phrase, “Hello. My name is…” and then he said “Josef”. Okay, I got the idea and so using the phrase book, we had the rudimentary tool for communication, although we were stuck with phrases like “where are you going?”, “where did you come from?” and such. We seemed to have made a connection.

This went on until, he found the phrase “this is home-made”. He took out a bottle from his kit bag opened it and offered it to me. “Slivovitz”, he pointed out in the book which in the English translation read, “plum brandy”. At his insistence, I took a swig from the bottle. How should I describe it? Liquid fire comes close. It did have a kick and I felt instantly warmed from the inside.

He then produced an apple and gave it to me. I was overwhelmed by his friendliness and generosity. As I bit into the apple, he reached over and took the phrase book. He looked something up and then he went over and sat next to Kate and showed her some phrase. Kate nodded in response. Then they both got up and made their way out of the compartment. As she walked past, she winked at me and mischievously said, “He’s invited me out for a smoke. Don’t wait up for us though.”

Then, suddenly I was alone in the compartment. As I finished off my apple, I suddenly realised that the soldier was a real smooth operator and that he had been after the phrase book all the time so that he could make a move on Kate. I felt used. Still, I reasoned, I was hungry now I am fed and besides, I had a bottle of liquid fire to dull the sense of humiliation. I wouldn’t see either of them again for at least a couple of hours and when I did, they were both positively giggly. I did get my phrase book back eventually but it had become dog-eared from recent use.

Post-script:- After we ditched the soldier at the border, Kate and I got to know each other better and we were to spend the next few days as traveling companions in Vienna, Austria.