Saturday, June 14, 2008

"I thought Italy would be the highlight of the trip," Kim said, "and Austria would just be some place we pass through. But wow."

We exited Italy in our usual, less-than-graceful style, buying train tickets that departed Florence at 2 a.m. instead of at a more reasonable hour, for the sake of saving 10 euro. (We promptly spent that 10 euro on a wine tasting held in the cellar where Machiavelli was imprisoned, which turned out to be less of a "wine tasting" than a party in prison.)

Around 1:30 a.m. we grabbed our bags from our storage locker and scrurried across town, but when we arrived at the train station, the gates were locked and the guard told us to go home.

We huffed for an hour, up a huge hill, to our former campsite, but the gates there, too, were locked.

We pitched a tent in front of the gates, grumpy again.

The next day we learned that red-eye trains depart from a different station. Apparently this was written in Italian on our ticket, and was so glaringly obvious to native Italian speakers that they wouldn´t consider giving us a refund.

We re-purchased a ticket for 10 p.m., which landed us in Venice at 2 a.m., for a 7 hour layover.

The train station in Venice was empty except for sketchy men, crazy bag ladies and the occasional prostitute. We knocked on the door to the windowless police station, where the cops welcomed us but offered no help. We then boarded an all-night bus and rode it in circles around the city, figuring we´d be safer under the watchful gaze of the bus driver. We slept for an hour, then decided, "Hey, while we´re here, might as well see Venice!" We stolled by the canals at 4 a.m., Kim clutching a can of bear spray (├╝ber-mace) in her right hand. By 5 a.m., we re-boarded the bus for some more shut-eye.

In our daze, we then boarded the wrong train at 9 in the morning, but caught our mistake quickly. The conductor personally helped us de-board the train and explained how to transfer to the correct one. Five hours later, we were in an Austrian town we´d never heard of.

Villach, Austria is the home of Karen Haar, a woman whom I met while walking around in Thailand last December looking for a place to eat dinner. Karin had been studying menus, and I suggested we eat dinner together. Though we only met one that one occasion, we kept in touch on Facebook, and she had offered to host us during our Austria visit.

We had no idea what Villach would be like -- we thought it might be a nondescript town, maybe the Austrian equivalent of Columbus, Ohio -- but we couldn´t have been more wrong. Villach is BEAUTIFUL. Nestled in the Alps (which are still snow-capped, even in June), this town boasts crystal clear lakes, towering green mountains, and a quirky pedestrian mall that puts Boulder´s Pearl Street to shame. Twenty or thirty kilometers from both the Italian and Slovenian border, Villach is where the Austrians keep their summer cottages and winter chalets.

We spent a day in Villach eating schnitzel and making sense of German. The following day we headed to Vienna with Karin.

Only one problem: the European soccer championships, held every four years, are happening in Austria as we speak, and all the hostels are booked. A cramp in the Vienna visit, right? Not at all.

Kim spotted a small family business boasting her same last name -- Ehardt -- and began talking to the owner. They suspected, but couldn´t confirm, that they might share a common great-grandmother. Or possibly a great- great-grandmother. Nonetheless, the Austrian Ehardts welcomed her as "family!" and offered us a place to stay in Vienna.

We spent an evening in the city center, watching soccer on an enormous flat-screen TV while surrounded by hooligans with the Austrian flag painted on their faces.

I came back to Villach with Karin the next day; Kim stayed in Vienna with her maybe-family-maybe-not. By now, she´s already boarded a flight to Frankfurt. She reaches Michigan on Sunday. I reach Denver on Tuesday. Our era is coming to an end. Or maybe its just beginning? Stay tuned.