Vienna and my first Slovakian Wedding

With my new haircut in tow, I left the comfort of the Northern Italian mountains and bused it East to Milan where I had nine hours to kill while awkwardly totting around a stuffed duffel and backpack. What does one do with a long layover while dealing with a couple of heavy, pesky bags? Eat of course! Since I couldn’t wander endlessly with all that added weight, I had to make strategic food/drink stops to kill some time and give my tired arms a break. Picture a Cookie Monster tour around the city. Ok, it wasn’t that bad and there weren’t that many crumbs flying out of my mouth, but I did eat a piadina, a melon/prosciutto salad, three coffees, a giant pizza with bresaola and more arugula, a craft beer and one stracciatella gelato. Time tastily flew by.

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After pacifying my seemingly endless hunger and coming to terms with the fact that I couldn’t live in Italy without gaining 100+ pounds, I reluctantly made my way to the station for my overnight bus to Vienna. When you’re in your thirties, taking a 12 hour bus overnight is no longer very appealing, as if it ever were. For reasons I prefer not to dive into on this blog, I pick driving over flying into new countries whenever possible.

And, no, I’m not running from the law.

It was a sweaty, long-ass 12 hours. But then again, maybe I’m being spoiled. I sort of enjoyed waking up to a pile of drool on my puffy jacket, pressed up against the greasy window, seeing quaint country houses dotting the Austrian hills. I liked being the only American on the bus and one of the only non-smokers at the toilet breaks in random highway rest-stops. I had that much more time to throw cold water on my face in the restroom and look at 4 am snack options as the smokers puffed with fervor while keeping a watchful eye on the driver, hopeful to pull in one last drag before the engine started gently humming again.

Arriving in Vienna was anti-climactic, and as I walked the outskirts of the city past rather dismal and uniformly lackluster post WWII buildings, I thought maybe my vision of Wien as a classical composers’ paradise with gold-adorned, fanciful buildings was a bit off from its most recent history. Silly me, I just hadn’t discovered the center of town yet. My spacious Airbnb apartment slowed down my city exploration― I found myself in one of those nesting moods. My mornings were slow and lazy with cup after cup of milky rooibos tea while reading an actual book.

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Vienna actually turned out to be quite beautiful and is full of apparently wonderful museums that I didn’t get around to visiting. I adore Gustav Klimt, a Vienna native, but I didn’t catch his paintings this time, and I suppose that’s ok.  Maybe this is rather embarrassing to admit, but my favorite part of my 3-day visit was this chain bakery, Anker, that had these amazing vegan sandwiches on seeded, whole-grainy, salty bagels with hummus and lots of crunchy fresh veggies. I ate five or six of these puppies in four days, but who’s counting.

Heading into Slovakia, also by bus with my trusty Anker sandwich in hand, felt exciting and somehow new, as I’d never traveled further East in Europe.  The Bratislava bus station became my home for three hours as I waited for two of my friends to pick me up in their VW bus in route from Croatia via Slovenia. While sitting on my bags, and eating a seeded bagel, I soaked up this new world of Slovakia, or at least one sliver of it – a woman with a Santa Monica Days, Los Angeles Nights T-shirt, tons of passionate smokers posted near garbage cans with XL bud receptacles on top (I felt like it was the last day on Earth to smoke), tall blond Slovakian women in very high heels and tight skirts coming and going, a dairy dispensing vending machine with yogurt and cheese, a fresh berry saleswoman, a whole line of taxi drivers idly waiting for customers (and smoking) in acid-washed, tight jeans, and teenagers with overstuffed backpacks heading to/from the woods. My friends felt bad about arriving late, but I loved having a reason to wait in one spot and people watch. Plus, I was starting to get a feel for the place.

What a divine sandwich!

What a divine sandwich!

My view from my post at the bus station in Bratislava.

My view from my post at the bus station in Bratislava.

By the way, the whole purpose of this trip, the haircut and all the bus travel through these random places was to attend the wedding of my dear friend Zuzuna and her husband-to-be Dave. I couldn’t miss this wedding for the life of me, and I can’t tell you how pleased I was to be part of such a splendid celebration and the joining of a small-town, but very worldly, Slovak lady and her Southern California husband.

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The wedding day, night and late night was one of the merriest celebrations I’ve ever attended. This fête was supposed to last until ‘Sunrice,’ a typo on the one English program available. I liked to imagine celebrating the return of the warm sun alongside the bride and groom with my favorite grain and soy sauce, exhausted from so much dancing. Sadly, I didn’t make it that long. I spun more to the jovial beats of the gypsy band than most amusement park rides do all season. I savored the three dinners spread out throughout the evening and middle of the night, my favorite being the giant barbecue with salty, grilled pork, chicken and sausages. I got good at politely accepting shots of the potent Slivovica (plum liquor) and tossing them over my shoulder while my toasting buddy had his head cocked back in passionate consumption. Although I was in bed my 3:30 am, I think I put in a valiant effort, sunrice or not.

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I felt extraordinarily blessed to have a community of incredible international friends around me and cherished the opportunity to connect with my local hosts even with the language barrier. The wedding was the perfect escape from my guiding and a return to the things I’ve been missing most lately while on the road: friends, family and community.

A couple more shots from Slovakia…

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Potato pancakes with fresh cheese, a cucumber, dill and sour cream salad and a cold bear. And all of this after a big bike ride. What could be better?

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I'm a little bit obsessed with stacked wood piles. I loved how many different shapes and sizes were in this one.

I’m a little bit obsessed with stacked wood piles. I loved how many different shapes and sizes were in this one.

Tokyo: Sleeping While Present in Multicolor.

I came to Tokyo thinking I would be lost in a sea of people, stuffed into bulging subway cars only to be groped by wandering hands, a nameless gaijin crossing the street with thousands of other pedestrians. With close to 13.3 million people in the world’s largest capital city, Tokyo is surprisingly quiet. At least that was my first impression from the airport to my hotel the evening of my arrival. Compared to Oakland, this city is on mute.

This quiet theme played out my first morning in Tokyo, when I was certain I stumbled into one of those prank TV shows with undercover cameras. My hotel provides breakfast at the adjoining diner, Jonathan’s, (imagine Denny’s only with green tea and bowing servers), and all the patrons were asleep. Well, almost all of them. A couple of the other confused hotel guests were milling about half-dead with jet-lag trying to decipher the 100+ beverage options at the highly mechanized drink bar, but sleeping teenagers and middle-aged business men sporting untucked button-down shirts with crumpled suit jackets occupied the rest of the booths. It’s common for the Japanese to sleep in public. There’s even a word for it, inemuri, which roughly translates to ‘sleeping while present,’ which is both culturally acceptable, necessary for an over-worked population and perfectly safe in such a crime-free society. As I was gulping down my green-tea latte and watching the drooling diners around me, I was liking this city more with each gentle snore.

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For those diners awake enough to appreciate it and/or chew, breakfast was a tasty and perfectly un-American combo of pork soup, rice, pickled radish, seaweed and Natto, an ooey-gooey mess of fermented soybeans coated in their own slime. Natto is best described as somewhat rotten tasting soy-beans rolled in uber sticky snot. Forgive me for not painting a very pretty picture, but really, it’s quite dericious and nutritious. Really.

Since I wasn’t in the mood to deal with more forms of transportation, exploring the city on foot seemed like a good first day plan, and according to my guidebook, there were all sorts of notable things to do in my neighborhood. A quick ten minute stroll from my abode, and I was in the Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden where I admired some grandiose gingko trees and enjoyed a chrysanthemum exhibit.

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Just in case you were curious about what types of ferocious insects and bugs live in the parks in Tokyo...

Just in case you were curious about what types of ferocious insects and bugs live in the parks in Tokyo…

I traveled from the tranquil park to the bustling shopping district near Shinjuku station, then through the sleepy, neighboring red-light district and on to Korea-town where I sampled the most divine stuffed grilled pastries with sweetened red beans, walnuts and other yummy things I couldn’t decipher.

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I know, I know. I flew all the way to Japan to eat Japanese food, but since I was in Korea-town during lunchtime, I decided on a make-your-own-Bibimbap-bar for lunch, primarily because the place was packed with people and they had bright-colored chairs outside. I even got a token piece of classy looking gum when I paid my bill!

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I don’t consider myself a rookie traveler, but I made the mistake of taking a nap in the afternoon because the voices in my head were strongly persuading me to close my eyes. The natto slime from breakfast must have had something to do with my eyes being glued shut, because I couldn’t get them open. Finally by belly won over the drowsy war, and I realized I had bigger, better things to do in Tokyo.

Like eat.

A tiny ramen shop on a deserted side street was home for dinner. I tried my darndest to duplicate the slurping sounds of the pudgy diner to my left, but gave up after splattering my shirt with too much flying broth. Table manners in Japan encourage zealous slurping as a sign of true enjoyment.

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What’s struck me most about Japan in these first 24 hours are all the colors and incredible design. Here are a couple more favorite images from the day.

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These clever machines serve hot drinks if you see a red line underneath, blue lines mean cold.

These clever machines serve hot drinks if you see a red line underneath, blue lines mean cold.

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I’ll catch y’all tomorrow over a cup of green tea.

Morning in Milano

Fashion Week concludes this weekend in Milan, and consequently I’m feeling a bit like a tourist-slob while out on my Sunday morning stroll. Are Italian people always this well dressed? Is it practical to walk around the city in shiny, designer 600 Euro heels on a Sunday morning? Since this is Milan, and it happens to be fashion week, I’m just going to hold my head up high, dust off my cherry-red, ill-fitted puffy jacket that would be better suited for a yuppy Colorado ski town, groom my unruly hair a bit and go get a pastry and Macchiato. There. Now I feel better.

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Morning in Milano