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Winter Travel Report, Part I: Vienna

January 6, 2013

Over my winter break from teaching I took a trip with my friend Rachel to three cities.

  • Vienna, Austria
  • Budapest, Hungary
  • L’viv, Ukraine

I took many photographs, which you can see on facebook. If you’re not my friend on facebook, you should be. (Search for davidmorrisonmusic.) In the future, I will continue posting most of my photos over there, while keeping this journal more text-centered. I know I’ve said that before, but this time I mean it. Entries with lots of photos are too much work; they cause me to procrastinate posting.

So I will throw up only a few pictures for each city, and dig through my skimpy notes for a few things to say about my experiences in each of these fascinating cities, which I saw ever so briefly. Today I will write about…


Vienna is not really my kind of city. It’s very nice if you have money and like shiny things. Me, I find affluence numbing; one of my main goals in life is to have as few possessions as I can possibly manage. There were some museums I would have loved to have visited, but I couldn’t afford that sort of thing on this trip. My main entertainment was just walking around and finding the cheapest food I could.

The first afternoon and evening of my three days in Vienna, I walked several miles up and down a brightly lit boulevard packed with Christmas shoppers. My boredom was only relieved when, along with a small clutch of fellow jaywalkers, I was lectured by a crossing guard. I actually enjoyed gazing down contritely, my hands behind my back, as we were scolded. German is the perfect language in which to be lectured.  I caught the word kindergarten several times. After about 90 seconds, he waved us off with a look of disgust. It was the best part of my day in Vienna, hands down. Or should I say, “Hände hoch!”


Christmas kitsch… a pleonasm? Most people would love the Viennese Christmas market. I can’t say why I find it so monotonous, the endless cutesy little gnomes and pricey confections, but truly, it makes me long to stand in some Brezhnev-era queue with a ration card for potatoes. Given European history over the last century, it seems abominably small-minded of me to complain about the blandness of the German shopping experience, but I can’t help it, I’m cranky that way. It did help that Rachel thoroughly enjoyed the market. I was at least able to appreciate the delight she took in silly hats and hot wine. I’m fully aware that my dislike of Christmas is not my most appealing trait.


There are a few rough-looking beggars, but not many. (Never found the right moment to take their pictures.) I can’t imagine begging is easy work in a Germanic country.  Also, it’s cold and wet.  Begging has its fads. If something works for one, others will try it. In Prague last fall, the trend was to kneel, face pressed to the ground, with a cap outstretched, in the pose of perhaps a mendicant Buddhist monk. Sort of theatrically abasing oneself. In Vienna this Christmas, the fashion is for a grown man to sit with his legs splayed like a child’s, holding a ragged teddy bear. I saw it three times. Very odd.

Day two.  Sunday afternoon. Freezing rain. My beloved Vans sneakers are okay in the snow but they’re for shit in the rain. My coat isn’t waterproof, either. Rachel, in all respects a better-prepared traveler than me—who isn’t?—is fitted out in high-tech winter wear. I’m dressed for an autumn stroll in New York. Buying anything is out of the question, especially in Vienna.

I ducked into the underground to warm up a bit and maybe dry out. (Wishful thinking.) I would have bought an umbrella, if I had found one. I thought perhaps there would be a shop in the underground catering to the common needs of travelers: aspirin, drinks, batteries, umbrellas… no such luck.  But there was a bookshop, which, strangely, had quite a few English language books… so hard to find in Poland.  of course, I can’t afford them right now.  And there was a sushi shop, but it was closed.

Traveling abroad, I find that I am endlessly searching for some common, simple item I would expect to find everywhere, only to be confronted in its absence by—in the unlikeliest places—bins full of whatever I was looking for last time, but don’t need or can’t carry now. Or perhaps it’s just poor resource-locating skills on my part. In any case, it’s why I am so obsessed with packing. Whatever you forget, you will likely have to do without. At best, you will be forced to pay more than you can afford for something that is not quite what you need.

Odd little shops like this are almost all gone, replaced by Benneton's and the Gap.

Lovely little shops like this are almost all gone, replaced by Benneton’s and the Gap.

Speaking of expenses and my inability to plan realistically, while checking on the price of the overnight train from Budapest to L’viv, I realized that I seriously underfunded this trip. I told Rachel that I might not be able to go to L’viv. She suggested that I ask my bosses to advance me part of my December pay. Well, duh, of course…  They were glad to help, ’cause they’re good guys like that.  Problem solved. I will be very broke in January, though.

“And then the Grinch smiled… a wonderful, terrible smile…”

Lest my Vienna post seem like one long-winded kvetch, let me sing the praises of the Cafe Hawelka. I am deeply indebted to Rachel for turning it up in her quest for the best version of some famous Viennese pastry. It totally made up for all the Christmas shoppers.

It looks like nothing has changed in there, not a tablecloth, since about 1950. The coffee was fantastic. You could tell the regulars; they all had stunning old world style. Even though I knew I was being gauche and doing violence to the ambiance, I just had to snap a couple of pictures.

If I lived in Vienna, I would go to the Cafe Hawelka every day to write. The decaying lampshades, the old wooden chairs, the faded sofas with their gold and red stripes… everything was perfect. But there’s nothing precious about it; it has the feel of a workplace, a no-nonsense quality rooted in the need to move enough coffee and cakes to make payroll and keep the lights on.

I have no particular feeling for antiques; shops full of old beer steins and war medals depress me. But I feel somehow at home in old cafes and diners. Perhaps it has to do with the fact that things are made and done there by hand, as it was with the old jazz and blues music I love so well. I especially love mismatched decor, as long as it is functional. And I like to see a bit of illogic in the workflow; save me from scientific workplace management already, the too-perfect CGI arc-of-motion in the empty, geometric space of the stripped-down retail box. Give me instead a waiter with an interesting face, gracefully stepping over the same wrinkle in the carpet, day after day. It feels human.

So Cafe Hawelka, on our last night in Vienna, left me with a feeling of great affection. Any city that can sustain such a place must have much else to recommend it, if only I had the time and money to explore it more fully.


On the train to Budapest.

But we were off to Budapest the next morning. It’s only a couple of hours on the train, but I wouldn’t have minded if it had taken longer.  I was happily lost in Trollope’s Barchester Towers.  Reading a great 19th century English novel, while riding a train across Hungary?  Pretty much my definition of living well.

Budapest will be the subject of my next post.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. January 7, 2013 2:18 pm

    Reblogged this on pinknoyze and commented:
    My buddy, doing his curmudgeonly thing- (he’s smart, funny, and well-read. I like his style, a lot. And btw, he’s also an excellent musician.

  2. Sibyl White permalink
    January 8, 2013 10:11 pm

    Hiking boots of excellent quality….hmmmm, I think so. Other than that, being a little cold is doable long as amazing cities like these are on the itinery. Summer travel will now be a refreshing breeze, I am thinking. A week-long backpack through the mountins perhaps.

    • January 9, 2013 10:28 am

      I’ve been thinking about building up my bicycling stamina during the spring and then doing what you once did, bicycling around Europe. It depends on whether anyone comes to visit me. I might choose to bicycle around Poland. That would be good for my language learning. I will invest in the right clothing and gear if I do that.

      • Sibyl White permalink
        January 18, 2013 12:35 am

        Oh, brings back happy memories. I had a Eurorail pass, remember. Doing Poland for your first bike trip, yep, thats what I would do. I have the Moss tent still; would save lots to camp. Except you are so good at finding budget hostels. Wouldn’t I love to accompany you. Oh, yes.

  3. January 9, 2013 7:03 am

    I’ve found that keeping my head and hands warm and my feet dry helps a lot in inclement weather. Get thee some redoubtable footwear.

  4. Louis Lopez permalink
    January 9, 2013 3:59 pm

    You know that i share your distaste for the “most wonderful time of the year.”

    The trick is to get completely oblivious to it when it comes around. I am getting closer to that with each passing year. Hopefully i’ll get there.

    • January 12, 2013 1:04 am

      Maybe next year I’ll find a country where they don’t even celebrate Christmas. There’s probably a wikipedia page about that. It would be nice to not even know it was Christmas day, but maybe that’s asking too much.

      • Louis permalink
        January 12, 2013 4:28 pm

        The Far East and the Middle East should fit the bill. If you go to the Middle East, you will then be exposed to Ramadan.

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