Day three of my trip teetered from idyllic to maddening back to idyllic again, and I’m sure I shattered at least a few peoples’ perceptions of America before I finally went to sleep. I don’t mean that in a politically charged sort of way, it’s just — well, read on.
I awoke in the apartment of a friend who works at the atomic particle collider near Geneva, then gazed out at the mountains while consuming a croissant and jam before continuing into the city with my friend Dan. After the GPS led us into the middle of a construction zone and I had to drive down a bike trail to escape, we arrived in the heart of the city. Geneva, or at least the neighborhood in which we ended up, seemed more like a Disney rendering of what Geneva should be than an actual Swiss city. Maybe it was the jet of water spouting from the lake, dissipating only at a zenith of some 100 meters; maybe it was the suspiciously ubiquitous chocolate shops. At any rate, when we returned to our trusty Volkswagen Polo and headed out toward the highway, I couldn’t shake the feeling that we were hopping the monorail away from Epcot.
Speeding through Switzerland in the sort of low-slung tunnels I’d only seen in Cruisin’ World video games brought another wave of surreal impressions, and it wasn’t until we arrived in Zurich for lunch that I got my first real dose of reality. About one mile from the hillside restaurant we’d picked out, traffic ceased to move. For the better part of three hours, we inched forward through a construction-filled central business district with no reduction in estimated arrival time on the GPS. Eventually we broke free from the herd and late lunch turned into early dinner at a mountainside boulangerie. After an evening rainstorm chased us from our perch, we headed to Austria under the light of an Orangina moon.
Upon arriving in Innsbruck, we headed to the nearest pub in an effort to erase the memories of vehicular travails. As soon as we ordered a pair of Tzipfe beers (the regional favorite) with our egregiously American accents, a flock of university students materialized in hopes of practicing their English on us. One girl asked where I was from, and when I said New York, she immediately launched into a starry-eyed explanation of why she wanted to go there someday. I think I was a bit too honest in replying – our conversation went something like this:
Random Austrian Girl: “There are casinos in New York!”
Me: “Uh, actually…”
Random Austrian Girl: “Yes??”
Me: “There aren’t really any casinos in New York.”
Random Austrian Girl: “Yes, there are casinos!”
Me: “I mean, I think it’s illegal or something.”
Random Austrian Girl: “But they were in the movie!”
Me: “Maybe you’re thinking of Las Vegas?”
Random Austrian Girl: (runs away)
I felt bad, especially when the girl’s friend said she was a “country pumpkin.” I had crushed this poor student’s vision of my home city – and what is New York if not a canvas on which people can project their unrealistic hopes and dreams? I spent the rest of the night learning Austrian customs (clink with the bottom of the glass, not the top, because that’s what the Germans do) and retired hoping I’d at least balanced some sort of cultural karma.
Day four of my trip dawned pale and rainy, a depressing backdrop from which to view the Austrians who’d accumulated at the corner café where I stopped to grab breakfast. As I waited for my croissant, I noticed they were all chain-smoking while nursing glasses of beer or wine. They smiled wanly as I grabbed my food and left.
A few hours later we crossed into the Czech Republic. Just a few minutes after passing the border, a Czech polizei pulled us over and scolded us in broken English. The problem, we gleaned, was that we’d failed to pick up a highway permit needed to drive in the Czech Republic, and as a result, we had to pay a fine. We had of course failed to read the signs, which were in Czech, but luckily, there was a special tourist discount (only $50!) The silver lining, we’d later learn, was that we’d avoided the same fate in Switzerland and Austria, both of which require such permits for the privilege of driving their highways.
Our run-in with the authorities completed, we chugged into Prague and enjoyed an evening of castle viewing, cheap beer drinking, and concert going – the main attraction being the Plastic People of the Universe, a band instrumental in ending the Cold War. More on that in an upcoming article, but suffice to say I found the band’s attitude to be less than typical of revolutionaries: “We don’t care about politics.”
Next stop, Germany.