Wednesday, December 26, 2007


A little pissed that I couldn't get my own compartment on the train, I joined two men in a non-smoking room and stuck my iPod earbuds into my ears. I relaxed for several hours listening to Rufus Wainwright and the Weepies while heading from Krakow to Vienna. Midway through the trip while crossing the Poland-Czech border, the guards gave me a particularly difficult time with my blue passport, and the older gentleman next to me scoffed in protest. When the guard left, we had a brief discussion about inferiority complexes, and then went back to our respective distractions.

I don't think I would describe myself as outgoing (isn't it interesting - I wonder if the ways we describe ourselves resemble even a little the ways others would describe us), but I am genuinely interested in other peoples' stories, and all the better if that person is a traveler. I feel a real bond with people who feel about traveling the way that I do, and I love talking with someone who is receptive to questions. I always have a million waiting just in case.

I forget how we started talking again later, but the older gentleman ended up sharing a few hours of stories with me about his sales job of forty years that took him around the world. I drank in every detail. It was really a nice time - I'm sure he enjoyed my absolute attention, and for me it was heaven - listening to him felt like reading an encyclopedia or a history book. He seemed to be sharing at a very personal level, and there were particularly fun stories about trips he took to Tokyo and Ukraine. We were really having quite a good time, and when I asked questions and pressed for more detail, he seemed to appreciate the opportunity to share. What a huge treat to have such a connection with a stranger.

Later as the attendant came to collect our tickets, I handed him my credit card to purchase the necessary supplement, as Austria wasn't included on my Eurail pass. He explained that he didn't have a credit card machine (although I had used one in Germany on the train the week before) and said he only accepted cash. I was shocked and offered him Polish zloty, but he just shook his head. I then offered him the only other currency I had, American dollars, at which he laughed. I had planned on purchasing schilling upon arrival in Vienna, not really remembering that the schilling hasn't been in circulation since 2002. And I'd been careful to get rid of every cent of Euro when I left Germany. Duh.

I admit that I am relentlessly Type A, a slave to order and detail, to a point. And then no more. So if that is 95% of me, the other 5% barely has her feet on the ground. I float along disregarding anything that doesn't strike me as vital for survival that very minute. I blame this on the fact that I've been in so many strange situations in so many countries, times when I was lost or broke or both, and it has always worked out. It's probably also because I've been single for so long that I'm used to my actions affecting only me. I'm a terrible stress monger, and I think as I've grown through my thirties I've been able to chill out in good ways, but that sometimes bleeds over into other areas. I tend to get overly casual with the fine points at times.

Back to the train: the man next to me who I'd been talking with for hours, Mr. Zellerhof, then spoke German to the ticket guy and paid for my ticket. I was embarrassed and stunned. I apologized and told him that I had no idea what to do. He gave me his business card and told me I could repay him whenever I was able. I really was stunned. Such kindness. I felt like I'd won a tiny little lottery. Can you imagine giving so freely without thought for what you would get in return?

Long story longer, I arrived in Vienna and made my way through the snow to the city center - taking the wrong tram twice - to my pension. I dumped my bag and set off to explore in the dark in freezing temperatures. I was looking for a payphone to call my brother and wish him a happy 28th birthday, but after about an hour I changed my tactic and started looking for an Internet cafe to send him a love note instead. I found Internet access on a side street and was on my way back to my room at about 10:00 PM when two ladies my age stopped me in the street. In patchy English they explained that they had missed a connecting flight on the way from Bulgaria to their homes in Italy and had to stay the night in Vienna. They were hoping I knew the city and could help them find a place to eat dinner. I was exhausted but apologetic, and told them I'd been in the city only about two hours myself and didn't know where anything was. They thanked me and left. And I immediately had a thought that you're probably having - just a few hours before a perfect stranger helped me, and there I was keeping all the good karma to myself. I went after them and explained that I had a guidebook, and that I could find a restaurant for them in the book and write the directions down. I can't tell you how thankful they were. I found a nearby place with Viennese food and drew a map, but when I finished, they asked me to join them. Can you believe that I drank beer and ate strudel with them past 1:00 AM? We laughed and talked about what it's like to be thirty-something in America and in Italy, politics and our dreadful President, history, health care, babies: to have or not to have, and more. Easily one of the best times I've ever had on vacation. We had our pictures taken together, kissed several times on the cheek, and went our separate ways. What a dream.

Vienna itself was beautiful. Because of the short time I had there it was one of the few cities where I stayed strictly on the tourist track, hanging out in Stephensplatz around Kohlmarkt and Demel Chocolate. I found Vienna to be laid back, civilized, and fun. I'd love to return in better weather for more adventures.

The day after I got back to the States, I bought Mr. Zellerhof some chocolates made locally and sent him Euro and a heartfelt note.


  1. I love these "pay it forward" stories. Good for you! I admire your independance and generous spirit--you're my hero.

  2. You're crafting a beautiful story for's excellent!

  3. a rare beauty you are, rarer still that you're so in touch with yourself and still highly aware of all that is around you. beautiful writing, your link buddies, good too. all the best, travel on and keep revealing the journey. good, damn good.
    and from one highly intuitive bullshit detector to another- take care-

  4. this story made me all vaklempt (sp?). really great. seriously, you are giving me a massive itch to travel. my goal this year is to visit at least two countries.

  5. I was just telling a friend about your "Leave the Party Early, at Least With No Regrets" story today and how meaningful it was, now another excellent adventure. Like Michael said, from above, you're my hero.

  6. I'm somewhere between wanting to be you when I grow up and utterly jealous. Do you feel magical?!

  7. Great story! I would love to travel like that someday but I fear I'm to much of an introvert.

    Happy New Year! Hope you have an incredible 2008 full of similar adventures!