I think I learned to speak Romanian

Nothing can prepare you for the bus ride we were just about to take. Getting lost on a highway. Illegal border crossing. Crashing into an airport bus bay. Police escort in Vienna. All this with a scheduled, international coach service.

On the outside of it, all Budapest-to-Vienna coach services look the same. I therefore chose the one that fit my schedule the best and bought a one-way ticket with Orangeways. Then I went to the station, had a coffee and got ready for the 3-hour trip.

The plus side: we reached our destination, it didn’t take much more than 2 hours extra, and I probably learned to yell directions in Romanian.

Let’s start from the beginning.

It’s a Thursday morning, and I’m waiting for the scheduled 9am Budapest-Vienna service to arrive. Clearly, it won’t be on time, no coach service in Europe has ever been on time, but this one now is in serious trouble.

They are late, it turns out, because our bus is still on the road somewhere far away, and the chances that it would arrive on time equals to it and all its passengers evaporate in the Summer sun. Orangeways, luckily, has a plan B: another bus and another driver.

The replacement service arrives, the driver has a look on his face which makes it obvious for the most untrained mind-reader that he didn’t exactly sign up for this trip. The bus and the driver look like they’ve been stolen from a Kusturica movie.

Well, he looks like he was stolen from the movie, and the bus looks like it was stolen by him.

A small, loud guy with a hoarse voice, a scar face and the moves of a featherweight box champion. And he arrived with this bus.

Orangeways fail 2

Neither the bus nor the driver has ever been to the western part of Hungary, let alone Austria, but that’s exactly what the GPS is for. The GPS takes 15 minutes for the driver to switch on, and since he can’t find Vienna airport in the point-of-interests list, he decides to put the border town as destination and so we get started. We are only 15 minutes late.

Close to the Austria-Hungary border then, although there are no scheduled stops until the airport, the driver calls for a 10 minutes break. 10 becomes 25, in the end of which he desperately wants to find someone who speaks Hungarian and has been to Vienna before.

Now, at this point, I’m writing code in the back of the bus and have absolutely no intention in helping out. I’m quite sure that we will reach Vienna in one way or the other, and have plenty better to do than navigating a clueless driver for the rest of the trip, on a scheduled coach which I paid $19 for.

Which is all cool, because by the time I thought this through, a Hungarian-speaking Romanian guy already took the navigator seat. Suddenly time became the most pressing issue, so the driver tried to convince the three people who’ve bought their ticket to Vienna airport to get off in Vienna city instead.

It may have worked much better if he did speak languages, because now he is only yelling “Airporto? Fluggafen!” on increasing volume levels. At this point, one of the Flughafen guys removes his bag from the overhead lockers, leaves the bus and starts to run towards the motorway.

I’m one-hundred-percent sure that this is a movie.

We are still in Hungary, but there will be a point in the not-too-distant future when we will cross the border. Normally it’s not an issue, because it’s as simple as following the motorway.

The driver is nervous though, which, in my head, immediately means that, one, he has no idea that Hungary and Austria are both part of the Schengen area, and two, he surely, definitely, must have stolen the bus.

On the border the former customs buildings still exist, and that’s the place where you can buy vignettes for the motorway. I’ve never seen an operating coach service do this, so it’s definitely a first, and it’s also a first trying to enter a car’s lane with a massive vehicle. We took a couple of wrong turns, got super-lost among the parking 18-wheelers and tried to pass through an operating police station.

Good news is that Austrian police are actually pretty cool, and instead of yelling the driver’s guts out, they simply point him to the right direction. We are on our way now to Vienna airport.

After the border crossing experience we are not an international coach line but a school bus. Random strangers are chatting loud with each other, some are singing, and when the driver seems to be contemplating the wrong exit, everyone keeps yelling directions in any language.

Everyone, except the two guys in the front, who have a plane to catch. They jump up to grab their bags when we reach the departures building. The driver is happy too, so happy that he doesn’t notice the bus bay’s overhead signs and crashes into them.

Now it’s only until Vienna city, we have the address, the address is in the GPS, where can it go possibly wrong?

Let’s just say that Vienna is a big city with many roads, high traffic and such exotic transport vehicles like, say, the tram. Quite confusing for a first timer, small wonder that we had the chance to meet the Austrian police once again.

Orangeways fail 1

Sometimes, the Internet is right.

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Wind in the city

The south side of Chicago is where all the drug addicts and the very-very poor people live — my friends rushed to throw this fact in, about where to stay in Windy City. Yet here we are: 11pm at night, sitting in a car and heading south.

The scenery does indeed change block-by-block. Once we pass south loop, the road becomes full of patches and potholes, and at one point we suddenly smell the very distinctive smell of marijuana. In the car, with the air filter on, in the middle of a four-lane road we ask ourselves: where can this smell possibly come from?

The weed cloud comes from one of the cars around. It’s not uncommon to smoke-and-drive here.

Could be worse.

My friend from high school, our guide for the night, works here in one of the world’s most famous hospitals: University of Chicago is where the first controlled chain reaction has been carried out. “Quietly, in secrecy, on a squash court under the west stands of old Stagg Field.”

Some of the hospital’s patients have AIDS, some Hepatitis A, B or C, and as you might have guessed: there are patients with all of those. Yet, it could be worse.

When we drive around the houses, we see many demolished buildings. With so many homeless people out there it’s hard to see what sense it makes to break houses down, but I’m actually impartial on this: if everyone moves out from one house, drug addicts and their dealers quickly move in. The state demolishes these houses to keep violence out, which does bring some transparency into a neighbourhood.

Street safety is a priority issue, especially since Chicago overtook Los Angeles in homicide rates. A dark police car is stationed at the corner of every second block. Perhaps that’s going to help, but I’m crossing my fingers now: “let’s not get a flat tire here”.

After the quick visit we are heading back downtown and have a cocktail in one of the clubs. There is Kooks on the radio, I put my phone on charge, and realise that I haven’t made any pictures in those last three hours.

How stupid.

Yeah, could be worse.

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Rapid sightseeing: Amsterdam, Prague

Flying is terrible. It’s not the part when you’re actually in the air, that’s fine. Terrible is getting to and from the airport, staying in endless queues, drinking overpriced coffee in shopping-mall-like terminals with nervous people around.

Whenever I can therefore, I choose the train. And trains in Europe are awesome! They are fast, comfortable, rather spacious, have onboard wifi and power plugs. Even when the ride is 8-10 hours long, I consider it being a rather nice workday: get on board, work a good few hours, find the restaurant car, and continue after lunch. Most trains serve coffee at your seat.

Rapid Sightseeing in Prague

The best days are when I can find a ride with a connection at an unknown city. Amsterdam, Cologne, Prague, Vienna, Milan – you can actually discover quite a bit of a lot of towns in 1-2 hours, starting from (and returning to) the main train station.

My latest series in Yakuzuzu Magazine is a rapid tour guide. I write about the cities you can discover in 60 minutes: what to see? Which route to cover to see the best sights? Is it even a smart idea to try?

  • In Prague, chances are that you will get terribly lost without a good map and good sense of directions. If you succeed though, you will take amazing photos in one of the best looking medieval cities in Eeastern Europe.
  • In Amsterdam, you can get a good glimpse of the city, seeing almost all important tourist sights. Get a flat white, and have a fantastic walk around the canals and beautiful buildings!

(Photo: Unsplash.com)

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Bitcoin to save Prague (and tourism overall)

Thanks to the snow and a missed connection, I’ve had unexpected hours to kill in Prague. I’ve bought some cakes, wrote this article – and realised the true value of Bitcoin.

These unforeseen opportunities to discover a city are usually loads of fun. This time however – having seen the Czech capital a few times already and being held back by the sub-perfect weather conditions -, I just decided to jump in a warm cafe and spend the time with work. I assumed that eating out some place in the former Eastern European Bloc is the cheapest option anyway. And I learned that it isn’t.

Do you know how much a coffee costs in Prague?

£5,40. That’s almost twice as much as it is in London.

Well, let’s be fair: the price the cafe asks for is very reasonable. The problem is that this is not the price you will eventually pay. Czech has its own currency, which means you look at significant banking- or exchange costs.

The cafe I chose didn’t seem to accept AMEX cards. Coming from direction Germany and talking about a small amount of cash, my best option was to exchange Euros (which I previously withdrew from my sterling account, to make it more financially rewarding).

So I went to the cafe, checked the price of one cappuccino and the most expensive looking cake, went to the exchange, queued for cash, and went back for the warm beverage.

Now, I understand that governments need their own currency to make corruption easier and to be able to confiscate the economy around the election campaign time, for all sorts of populist reasons. It’s just that it makes the world a little worse.

Wouldn’t it be awesome to be able to pay with a currency you are already familiar with, without the need to deal with fake-looking Monopoly money, dodgy exchange booths and shady folks?

Cryptocurrencies are not only for the Internet.

Hey foreign merchants, just so you know: if I ever see a Bitcoin badge on your cafe’s window, I will go in. Even if you play minimal techno in Balkan punk style. Even if your seats are made of stones.

This is happening right here and right now, people – and it’s moving really fast. There will be more currency options, the markets will lose their volatility, and I’m waiting for the day to be finally get paid in BTCs.

I’m definitely in for Bitcoin (and Litecoin, Namecoin, Quarkcoin etc.) – but trying to stay on the safe side. For the start, I’ve set up a server to collect market infos and created an app to display price charts. So far the server is slow, so only the 24-hs BTC view is free as an Android app: BTC Charts for Android (coming soon for iOS and the web).

(Please debate on Twitter.)

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Barbecuing down the Spree

Probably the coolest mean of transport in Berlin: the grill-boot. Sitting around the table, drinking beer, cooking Frankfurters on the barbecue, while floating around on the river. During today’s run I could capture a close enough shot of the grill boat, so here you go dear readers:

Barbecuing down the Spree - grill-boot in Berlin

For the full experience, please imagine some minmal techno while viewing the picture.

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Men at work

Back from the holidays with Katrin; after the week (and a long weekend) when we drove 300 kilometers a day, spent 20 hours on average in all cities visited and slept in a different bed every night, I can say: our batteries are charged.

It’s hard to fit in yet – whenever I close my eyes, the road seems moving fast. The 100+ unanswered e-mails and the 5000+ RSS flood is over though, and apart from knowing nothing about the Olympics, it feels like being back in the world again.

Some finishing thoughts:

1. Holidays are for disconnecting from the world. Even if you plan to tweet and blog, if you are switched off, it won’t work. (And it shouldn’t.)

2. When driving in Czech, ignore all the signs of the road and leave everything to the GPS. We actually have reached the end of a road in a forest, following the Prague signs.

3. If holidays feel more tiring than daily work, it still can work out as a switch off. Perhaps it comes down to the mindset of time out, I don’t know. It just works.

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World Touristiness Map

It’s the middle of Summer, when people either spend their holidays or are in offices, looking for holiday offers and places to visit. During my daily session of such discoveries I bumped into a map, collecting the world’s most touristy places – you may want to visit or avoid them, this map will be of use.


The map on Google Maps

The map has been created by Bluemoon, based on the meta tags of photos uploaded to Panoramio: “Yellow indicates high touristiness, red medium touristiness, and blue low touristiness. Areas having no Panoramio photos at all are grey. The analysis takes into account how many photos and by how many authors there are in a given area.”

How relevant it is for my search is hard to tell – probably not very. According to Facebook’s recent study on which social landmarks people visit the most, whatever masses think is worth visit is simply weird: what is there to see (or at least, check in for) at Kurfürstendamm?

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Train

I have the tendency to buy flights tickets only a few days before departing, which makes it all much, much more expensive as it should be. And it leaves me with the opportunity to travel a lot by train.

I wouldn’t say that train trips per se are a good thing, for one, because I love to work on airports (yes, it’s a fact: if you work on airports than you are important!) The last Berlin-Vienna trip on the other hand was something I would have again anytime, we had such a great time for those 9.5 hours on the train.

It was great thanks to the following:

  • I was traveling with Katrin; traveling in two is always more fun
  • Full charged laptop battery – I actually managed to be efficient for those 4 hours they lasted
  • Perfect weather: rain and cold outside makes the whole thing freaking romantic
  • Well chosen book: there is no single peace that suits train trips better than 80 days around the world
  • The new Japandroids album

What could have made it even better: good coffee and cleaner toilets, maybe.

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