We got off the train in Vienna after dark, although it was only six or so. We wandered, mostly following the other travelers until we found the tram station our couchsurfing host had told us to get to. Vienna was our first couchsurfing experience – it’s a system through which travelers are matched up with hosts in various cities. We found it easy to use – sign up for a profile, search for hosts in the city you want to go to and narrow it down to people you like or who seem to share interests with you. Then you contact them with the dates you’re in the city and if they’re available and think you won’t rob them blind, you have a host!
Its part cultural exchange part cool way to travel and in Vienna, our host Roland was to be our first host. His instructions for the metro system were pretty clear and we had no trouble getting to his place, except for a slight mixup where I thought we had to stay on the tram one more stop and we missed where we were supposed to get off. No problem though, we just backtracked one station and were on our way again. While we were walking to Roland’s house, clearly looking like slightly lost tourists, an old Austrian woman stopped us and asked where we were going but then spoke no other English and had no idea where we were supposed to go (turns out it was about four houses up the street). This we found was atypical for Austrians, like Germans they seem to mostly ignore tourists. However, if you stop and ask them for help, they will do their best to be extremely helpful. Part of it I think is that most are embarrassed about their English proficiency, even though most of them speak excellent English. We definitely found this with Roland and his friends, who all seemed fluent by our standards, but were a little nervous of their grasp of the language. Once we got to Roland’s flat, he made us feel right at home – it was a fantastic first host. He loves tea, so we drank countless pots (which I got along with just fine!) and he kept telling us to treat it like our own home. After a couple pots of tea we headed to the grocery store and picked up ingredients for dinner (my chicken and grapes recipe) and a couple bottles of wine. Several of Roland’s friends dropped by that night and we all hung out with the food and wine.
Originally Roland thought he would be very busy while we were there due to his job (in a hotel restaurant) but when we arrived he had quit three days earlier, so the next day we all headed out together to explore the city. We wandered through Vienna, visiting the Stephansdom, Petersplatz, the huge Viennese market, the university district and the Museum quarter. We stopped in a pub for a beer and bought maroni (roasted chestnuts) from a street vendor. In the museum quarter Roland showed us where he and his friends used to hang out when they were younger – a square full of odd chair-like objects where young people often hang out and drink. Of course we climbed all over them and leapt from one to another, garnering some bemused looks from older museum patrons passing through.
On our way back to Roland’s flat we passed through the main shopping district and Roland suddenly had the idea to take us to a shop he knew that you’d never know about unless you already knew it was there. An odd arrangement surely! Turns out it was a funny little apothecary that sold all types of herbs, some for medicinal purposes (sleep-aids and things to lower cholesterol) and some that were hallucinogenic, all legal of course, so no pot. Janice and I bought bhunda, this odd herb from northern India that was apparently a relaxant and a mild hallucinogenic if taken in large quantities, but as Janice and I found, it was so bitter and unappealing that we couldn’t tolerate it at all – ick. So the relatively straight and narrow it was for us!
That night we decided to go to a bar to meet another of Roland’s friends who was at or in this show going on there that night. Roland didn’t think ID was necessary, in Vienna they aren’t very strict and he’d never been asked for ID before. Of course that night would prove to be the exception, likely because Janice looks relatively young, but eventually we found a bar that didn’t ask for ID. Unfortunately, Roland told us a story about that place as we were heading in – he and his friends had been there a few years before and had run into some trouble with a white supremacist group that hangs out there. Needless to say we were very nervous heading in, but luckily there was no such group and we just hung out and played foosball (which I suck at).
The next morning (more like 1pm due to our late night) I woke up with extreme back pain (perhaps from sleeping on the couch) and wasn’t up for much, so we mostly hung out with Roland and did some laundry. We hung everything to dry in his living room from pipes running through the ceiling and the place ended up looking like a cheap dry cleaners – maybe not the ambiance he was going for! That evening we decided to go out for dinner (I had cooked both nights previously and we wanted to try Viennese food) so we headed to Wienerwald, which means Vienna Forest, yes named for the forest just outside the city. It’s essentially their version of a Swiss Chalet, so I had roast pork with sauerkraut and potato dumplings – very tasty. Roland also introduced us to Sturm, which is Viennese young wine. It’s the prettiest thing, like a jewel in a glass. It’s opaque and a gorgeous magenta colour and it tastes like alcoholic juice – delicious but dangerous!
The next morning we headed to the train station to head to Zagreb, a lovely nine hours away!