“And after dinner, of course,” said one of our new friends, “vodka and pickles.”
At this point in the evening, I felt nothing could shock me. Earlier I’d been staggered to observe people in many of Krakow’s charming bars casually drinking liters of beer through large plastic straws. When I asked a local woman about it, she laughed and said, “Oh, that’s not beer.” I was so relieved; call me old fashioned, but somehow sipping beer through a straw seems to be flying in the face of nature. “No,” she continued. “That’s beer with ginger flavor added to it.”
I was still reeling from that appalling revelation when a round of tiny vodka glasses appeared on the table along with huge green pickles. “You eat them after drinking the vodka,” someone explained. “It helps keep you hydrated.” Oh, well, if it’s good for my heath… Na zdrowie!
After a month on the road, I’m still gobsmacked by how much I have to learn about the world. So far we’ve traveled through Spain (Seville, Barcelona), Italy (Genoa, Verona), Germany (Munich), Austria (Salzburg) the Czech Republic (České Budějovice, Český Krumlov, Prague) Poland (Krakow, Katowice), and Slovakia (Zilina, Košice). We’re now proceeding towards Transylvania by slow stages, hopping from one hitherto unknown spot to another. As we stumble on and off trains, we find we’re confronting many of the essential travel questions people have been asking since our earliest ancestors first wandered over into the next valley and discovered another tribe.
How do you communicate without a common language?
Zipping in and out of so many countries, we scarcely have time to learn how to order beer in our new temporary language, let alone master the nuances of conversation. But if you’ve ever played charades or Pictionary, you’ll know that words aren’t everything. Last week I stopped into a hair salon in Krakow, pointed at my gray roots and made scissor motions at the tips of my hair; my new fryzjer knew just what to do. Similarly, when I arrived in Košice yesterday and wanted the hotel to wash our things, I simply made drawings of the various items, which not only amused the desk clerk no end, but insured that we received every item back this morning.
Can you turn strangers into friends, or at least acquaintances?
Finding congenial souls along the way enlivens the journey and gives you fresh topics to think and talk about afterwards. One of the best ways to meet interesting people is to take a free tour. You usually get the liveliest and most knowledgeable guides, who are highly motivated by your tips and the hope of luring you into taking more tours; people who take free tours tend to be slightly less conventional and more open. Another way to connect is by renting a room or apartment directly from an expat or local via AirBnB, where you’re likely to find cheaper, homier places and a host who knows the best bars in the neighborhood.
What makes for the most memorable experiences?
We recently had a one-night stopover into Katowice, Poland, a gritty, post-industrial town whose mines were exploited by the Nazis and the Soviets, leaving a landscape dotted with the monstrous, rusting hulks of derelict factories. “Katowice is the butt of jokes throughout Poland,” a tourist brochure informed us, rather unnecessarily. At the train station’s information booth, we asked the two young men on duty how to get to our hotel, which was 300 meters away. The tall, skinny one with the braces started to answer, the short, stocky one disagreed, and they went back and forth like two wild and crazy guys from the old Saturday Night Live routines until Rich and I went into whoops and had to hurry away. We soon found our hotel, which was so close to the station that we could here them announcing trains from our room. My point – and I do have one – is that getting off the beaten path lets you experience all sorts of odd and entertaining encounters. Our night in Katowice was like stepping back in time to the old Soviet days, only with better food and the opportunity to leave in the morning.
There isn’t nearly enough space in a single post to fill you in on all we’ve learned, so watch for future updates on lodging, packing, train travel, and of course, drinking customs around the world. Na zdrowie!
I'm an American travel writer based in Spain and currently living in California.
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