Adventures in Austria, Part 1 – Autos, Energy, & Austrians

by Ben N on June 25, 2012

So there I was.

Stumbling down the cobble-stoned back alleys of Vienna on a broken ankle, after bar close, with my pool cue walking staff, my Indian Companion at my side, and Drag-Queen glitter still on my face, when I accidentally walked right into the headquarters of the most powerful organization ever known to human kind….

Sounds like the beginning of a bad Dan Brown knockoff, but it is actually one of the bizarre tales that has become my life.

In this case Adventures in Austria! (Part 1)

The story started not long ago, when I was invited by a public university to attend a conference in Vienna, Austria as part of a public/private partnership think-tank to help design the future of clean transportation. After a bit of “Gee Wiz, really? You want ME?” it was all confirmed legit and travel arrangements were made.

It’s not really a small thing to go from Milwaukee, Wisconsin to Vienna, Austria – it’s three three flights, back-to-back, one in the States, one Trans-Atlantic, and another through Europe – all coach! Since I’m still recovering from a double-fracture of the left ankle, I really wasn’t looking forward to ANY cramped transportation for long amounts of time, let alone being crammed on airplanes and running from one terminal to the next.

But I was off. Everything was uneventful until leaving the States from the Philadelphia airport, when my first clue was a flight attendant muttering under her breath, “Hope we leave in time…” When I asked why, she said that Air Force One was landing. What I didn’t realize right away was that when Air Force One comes to an airport, EVERYTHING else stops. Right then, we were on the plane, away from the gate, waiting our turn for take-off. We had just one plane in cue in front of us when everything stopped – I was stuck on the runway for the next hour. That’s ON TOP of what’s an eight hour flight anyways!

Thanks Obama!
(Nothing personal Mr. Prez, I wouldn’t have been happy with a Republican either….)

Needless to say, I missed my connecting flight in Europe.

So then, I was in the Frankfurt airport, (which is HUGE!) not knowing where to go, not knowing how to rebook a flight, and everything is in GERMAN!

Maybe if I was with a group, or didn’t have an injury, or even knew more than two words of German, it would have been a little easier. Instead it was two hours of standing in lines, being told I had to go to a different line (on the other side of the airport) no no, I had to go back to the first airline….. AAAAAHHRHRGG! Good thing I had one of those prescription pain pills with me. Ah that’s better. Right then was also when a nice gate agent from Lufthansa decided that I was a “special needs” customer and took me over to a separate waiting area, where I could sit down and a British gate agent helped me out getting it all straightened out.

Which was kind of weird that I was suddenly staring right at a Chevy Volt in the middle of the Frankfurt airport.

Except that it wasn’t. It was an Opel Ampera.

There was a large display with banners, video screens, and the car itself. I didn’t get a chance to look long, and I had to right away get to my next flight.

Once my flight arrived in Vienna, my life got easy, as I met up with my contact and guide, Johannes (Yanis), one of the University students who helped organize the conference. He spoke English well and made me feel right at home. We traveled in a rental car – in this case, a BMW hatchback with a 6-speed manual transmission and engine auto-start/stop. At traffic lights, the engine automatically turns off, and then comes back on when you push in the clutch to shift into first. It was odd to see “tiny” versions of cars that I had only ever seen in the United States as luxury or larger import vehicles. Of course there were also lots of Renaults, Citrons, and other European cars, but there were also Ford Focus’s and the Smart car was very popular, especially as a “car-sharing program” vehicle.

I got checked into my hotel room not far from the city center in Vienna.

I thought I would be good in the room. A hotel room is a hotel room, right? I checked ahead of time and knew that they used 240V power and a certain style plug, so I brought an adapter to charge my camera and electronics. No problems there. Until I tried turning on the lights.

The only things that looked like they could have even been light switches didn’t do anything. Oh well. Hmmm. I’ll figure it out. It only took me about ten minutes to realize there was a slot by the door that the room key card goes in. Put the card in there, and it’s a master ON/OFF switch for all the lights in the room. Boy, did I feel stupid, but I had just never seen a hotel before that did that. I actually thought it was a great idea – saves plenty of power while you are gone.

Then I went to use the bathroom, and realized something was wrong there too. Wait a minute…. Shower… Sink…. Hmmm. What’s missing? Why is there NO TOILET in the bathroom? What kind of crazy country am I in!?

The bathroom door was unusual. It was sort of a  large wooden sliding panel. Not quite a “pocket door”, but pretty similar. It really looked more like a wall decoration than something functional. I realized there was another smaller one next to it. Sure enough, behind door number two was a slot of a room with a toilet and very compact sink. At least there wasn’t the “Three Shells” that Sylvester Stallone had to deal with in DEMOLITION MAN, that would’ve been too much for me!

Of course being awake for 24 hours straight really wasn’t helping me think well and adapt to new situations. But we were burning daylight, and I was in a foreign land! Time to get out and see something while I could, as the next day, I’d be off at the conference. Johannes and I drove to the city center, past gorgeous old buildings – government, banks, operas. The buildings shown as though they were all recently sandblasted. (Later, I did find out how much maintenance is done on buildings on a regular basis. To keep things looking good, the construction workers cover the outside of the scaffolds with tarps that are printed with an image of the building on them. The effect is bizarre. It’s actually a pretty good optical illusion – you know you are looking at construction equipment, but you really just see the building)

One of the city's many road-side sausage stands.

I was also pretty hungry and ready to try out some local cuisine. When I told one friend that I was going to Vienna, he e-mailed me a photo of a can of Vienna Sausages and said “Enjoy the local food!”. I told him I was pretty sure that they did NOT have those there. What they did have was lots of sausage stands – permanent roadside kiosks serving up good local street food. Typical fare seemed to be a grilled sausage, sliced up, on a rectangular paper plate with ketchup and mustard and some sort of tiny disposable fork. I tried a “Käsekrainer” and it was delicious – a tasty sausage with cheese built right in!

The actual local name for the city is Wien. So if you were from that city, you would be a Wiener. That’s where one of the American names for the hot dog came from. There were lots of restaurant and business signs that said Wiener this and Wiener that. Some of them were rather humorous in English, so I had just a few low-brow chuckles to myself.

St. Stephan's - note the covered scaffolding

Interior of St. Stephan's Cathedral

We saw a few of the cool downtown buildings, including the gorgeous Stephansdom, or St. Stephan’s Cathedral – a fantastic Gothic building with all sorts of macabre stone carvings. It looked like it was straight out of the end of DIABLO video games!

We also grabbed a coffee at a local coffee shop. All the waiters are rude, but that’s their thing there. It’s sort of what you pay for.

Of course I couldn’t help but notice the transportation in the town. For starters, it took us FOREVER to find parking! And it was expensive when we did. Johannes confessed that he doesn’t own a car. He bikes everywhere (all the big roads had dedicated bikes lanes, separated by a median from the main road) and takes mass transit at other times.

There simply were not parking lots that I recall seeing. There were a few underground parking structures, well hidden, and compact. I loved seeing all the black streaks and scrapes on the walls, where drivers misjudged their turning radius. Some hotels had very small surface lots. One the street, drivers would need to go find some sort of small parking ticketing office and then place a stub on their dashboard. In a single phrase, “What a hassle!”. I don’t think I would want to own a car in a city like that. But on the other hand, you wouldn’t need to either.

Watch your toes!

Trolleys, trams, subway, and busses were ever-present. The old trolleys looked ever so retro, with their bright red pill-shaped design – antennae reaching heavenly for their electric wires. The new trams didn’t look as nice, but they were favored, and they have air-conditioning. The transportation system was unified – for example a monthly pass would cover trolleys, busses, and the subway. Most of the transportation, featured “Bahn” as part of its name. The subway was the “U-Bahn”. I keep seeing signs that pointed somewhere and said “Einbahn”. But I could never figure out where the Einbahn was. It never clicked until the last day of the trip that the sign simply said “One Way”.

Don't have a bike? Rent one!

Street parking was interesting too. Every so many car parallel parking spaces there was a bike rack that would take up one space and hold six or eight bikes. The bikes ran perpendicular to the curb. The were TONS of motorcycles, mopeds, and scooters of all sorts of different types. I think I saw everything, except not a single Harley Davidson. Knowing how much those cost in Milwaukee, I would think they would be a fortune in Vienna, and almost impossible to park.

In the United States, motorcycles in the city are typically parked, at an angle, with the rear tire near the curb. Two or three can fit in one car space, depending on the size and style of cycle. In Vienna, it wasn’t like that. Motorcycles are parked PERPENDICULAR to the curb, just like the bicycles, and nearly as tightly packed. It was amazing to see something like so many bikes and cycles packed into the space of just two cars.

All of this, and I had only really just arrived in Vienna.

Tune in again soon to the next installment of “ADVENTURES IN AUSTRIA”, where I try more food, storm the castle, and end up at the world’s wildest sausage party! Maybe I’ll even get to how I stumble into the lair of the arch-enemy!


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