Language Barriers and Being Monolingual in Europe

“So what languages do you speak?” was one thing that a lot of people asked me when I was preparing for my trip. There was also a pretty unanimous expression of shock on the faces of everyone who asked when I replied with, “Other than English, none.” The Asian languages in particular would have been a bit of a challenge that would require a mindful application I just didn’t have, but what of the other languages that use the same Latin symbols and letters? I made a rather naive excuse for it, saying “I’m going to be going to so many countries, there’s no way I could learn the languages of every single one of them!” It sounds lazy, I know, but it was the truth – I was rarely in a country for more than a week, and never exactly knowing where I was going to end up next, so never knowing which language I should prioritise in learning. Because they all had their own languages that were dominant, with no major common lingual factor except – yep, you guessed it – English, in one form or another.

But the honest truth is that I never went into the trek around Europe expecting the world to cater to what was probably my biggest touristic flaw. I was expecting to have a much more difficult time as a monolingual than I did, and the ease with which I actually did around is a surprise for which I am quite grateful. I often found myself playing charades or using broken English in the most obscure or random places, only to be told, “It’s okay sir, I do speak English.” It was slightly humiliating, but it was the one thing I couldn’t escape or distance myself from, or make any immediate move to change that would be directly helpful – by the time I learnt the basics of any language it would be time to move on to the next country! Still, it wasn’t always smooth sailing, and Europe provided me with more than a handful of awkward and memorable linguistic experiences.

***

The Russian and Mongolian languages and their Cyrillic alphabet did inspire a bit of my fascination with other languages, but for the most part, everyone in Russia and Mongolia spoke Russian or Mongolian, and not much else. It was when I got to Finland that the concept of widespread multilingualism really hit me. I watched on, slightly intimidated, as Susanna’s Finnish friends seamlessly moved between Finnish, Swedish – the countries two official languages – and English, which everyone just seems to know anyway despite it not being an official language. Scandinavia and northern Europe were like that, I was told from the beginning – almost everyone learns English in school, so I should have no problems. Yet I was still exposed to what felt like at least three different languages in each country. It actually made me feel a little less intelligent, to see small children yapping away in a foreign language and switch over to what was an impressive command of rudimentary English, especially for a 5 year old, and back again as though it was nothing. In an attempt to make more excuses, I told myself it was the geography and logistics of Europe than lent its residents to learning so many languages. They have many neighbours in close, bordering proximity, with everyday practical uses for the languages they were learning, and a constant need to practice them. How often were my Year 7 French lessons going to come in handy in the middle of Sydney?

Although I shouldn’t speak so soon – the country where I did encounter my first language barrier was, of course, France.
“The French are so arrogant – they’ll understand English, and know you don’t speak French, but they’ll pretend they don’t know what you’re saying because they think it’s beneath them to speak your language in their country.” That was the general idea a lot of people had told me to expect in France, particularly Paris, but I’m so pleased to say that it was not my experience at all. A lot of the guys I was with for Parisian Pride spoke amongst themselves in French, but when they addressed me they always spoke in English, or at least to the best of their abilities. Which was more than I was doing for them, considering I was in their country, so I feeling nothing but gratitude towards the Parisians I encountered. Well, perhaps a little more than gratitude… whatever language they spoke, Parisian men were still Parisian men.

However, during my frantic last morning at the hostel in Paris, packing before my 12pm check-out time, I was accosted by one of the housekeeping staff. She seemed a little flustered when she entered the room and saw me doubled over my backpack, trying to shove everything inside as quickly as I could. I probably looked like a deer in the headlights too, and we both just stared at each other for a few seconds. Then she started speaking to me in French.
“Oh… ah… sorry. I don’t speak French,” I said sheepishly. However, she continued motioning to my bed and speaking to me in the foreign tongue.
“Ahh… Check out is at noon? I still have fifteen minutes?” I said, pointing to the clock. She said something else in French, with some emphatic hand gestures, and stared earnestly at me.
“Ahh… I don’t speak French,” I muttered, before trying again. “I’m about to leave, I’m just packing my things now.” I was mortified to realise I had begun raising my voice, as though the housekeeper might suddenly start to understand English if I said what I was saying loud enough. She just looked and me and said something else in French. We both just stared at each other. It was pointless: neither of us had the slightest clue what the other one was saying, and we weren’t talking to each other anymore – we were talking at each other, and it was achieving nothing except frustrating the hell out of us. In the end she just shrugged her shoulders and left the room, in what I can only assume was a non-verbal cue for “Hurry up and pack your things and get the hell out!”

***

Given that northern Europe was better known for the English skills of its residents, it’s no surprise that Spain was the next country to present me with a language barrier, although this time it was an entirely different situation. I learnt a fair bit of Spanish before a trip I took to Costa Rica a couple of years ago, and even studied it for a semester at university afterwards. Despite all that, the only phrases I had mastered allowed me to tell people I speak Spanish, just not very well, and to order a beer – priorities, right? It wasn’t much, and it really wasn’t enough when I tried to make conversation after locking lips with a guy on the dance floor at a nightclub in Madrid. He spoke about as much English as I did Spanish, or even less, so I basically had to stand there with a blank stare until he finally said something that I even half recognised. Not that he was saying much, other than “guapo“, between our kisses, though. I guess there are some situations where body language really does suffice.

Yet the country does have some other linguistic tensions that are a little bit more important than a Spanish one night stand. When I was in Barcelona I thought my Spanish was just exceptionally poor, but it turns out that in the region of Catalonia, almost everything is written in Catalan, and a lot of the locals get annoyed when you ignorantly launch into speaking to them in Spanish, regardless of your fluency. It meant little and less for me, someone who could hardly speak either, but for a Spanish speaker like Rich it was quite frustrating. But probably not as frustrating as it was to all the local Catalonians who everyone just assumes speak Spanish. I was able to discreetly bow out of that internal national conflict, as my reliance on English wasn’t as likely to offend anyone as much as it would just make them think I was an ignorant tourist.

The way I was able to explore Europe despite only knowing one language does give you an idea of the kind of power that fluency in English can offer you. Some people even find the language rather intimidating. I remember talking about it with Ike when I was staying with him in Ancona. Ike is half Dutch, so he spoke English and Italian as well as a bit of Dutch, but he told me of his own interesting experiences with language in Spain.
“It’s interesting – people are almost afraid of speaking English incorrectly, especially a lot of younger guys”, he mused as I told him my own experiences in Madrid. “I mean, they won’t get better if they don’t practice, but they don’t want to speak it if they can’t speak it perfectly. It doesn’t really make sense. A lot of the guys, they would rather try and speak to me in Italian.” He had a good chuckle remember thing that. “And… I mean, they don’t even know Italian. There’s some small similarities between Spanish and Italian… but, you know, not enough. They’re rather speak to me in terrible Italian than use slightly imperfect English.” It was something that I never came across – most likely because English was the only option they really had when talking to me – and it’s something I still haven’t been able to really explain.

***

Spain and Catalonia aren’t the only regions to have geo-lingusitic tensions. On my first night in Vienna with Kathi, she had explained to me some of the differences between the dialects of German that are spoken in Austria and Germany. “It’s mostly the same, but there are some different words for things that we have that the Germans don’t.” The more she explained it, the more I realised it was much the same as differences between American English and British English and even Australian English. At first it doesn’t seem like much, but you when you think about the different meanings we assign to different words – the use of “thongs” springs to mind – you understand just how much confusion there can be with these slight differences within the language. “It’s also frustrating when we go to Germany,” Kathi continued, “because most of the people in Austria take the time to learn some of the differences in the German they speak in Germany, but not many Germans do they same when they come to Austria.” She sighed and rolled her eyes. “It’s like they think they’re the ones who speak real German.” I couldn’t help but giggle to myself a little. It was interesting to see that such little problems could be, quite literally, the same in any language.

Yet there were other times when the different language posed absolutely no problems at all, and appeared to exist side by side with the greatest ease. When I arrived in Prague and was sitting down in Tomas and Matej’s kitchen eating the dinner they made me, the two often had short, lively exchanges in another language. When I asked Tomas what language they were speaking, Tomas seemed like he had to pause and think about it for a minute. “Well… I am speaking Czech, and Matej is speaking Slovak.” Tomas was originally from the Czech Republic, while Matej was a native of the neighbouring Slovakia.
“So… the languages are the same?” It was confusing, and seemed like literally the opposite of the kind of thing that Kathi had been talking about with the German language – instead of one language that everyone had trouble understanding, this seemed to be two languages operating like one.
“No, not the same,” Tomas said, thinking more. “They’re just… similar. I can speak Czech, and understand Slovak. Matej can speak Slovak, so we can just speak either.” He shrugged, not thinking much of it, but I found the concept rather mind-blowing: that you could speak in one language and listen to someone else speak in another. It was almost more than my poor little monolingual brain could handle. Considering they both used to be part of Czechoslovakia, I can only assume that the languages must be very similar, but even still, I was slightly amazed.

While I was impressed with the way the two languages operated so smoothly in sync, Prague was probably the least English-friendly city that I visited in the whole of Europe. Buying a bus ticket in the corner store proved to be a bit of a mission – Tomas had been having a cigarette outside, but I had to call him in to help me when I realised the woman behind the counter didn’t speak a lick of English. After that, I just had to hang on to my old tickets to show her the one I wanted whenever I went to buy a new one. There was enough English to get by in the main touristic parts of town, but I was lucky I usually had Matej or Tomas around whenever I was in the more obscure parts of town, because something tells me I wouldn’t have fared so well there as I had in the rest of Europe. Even sitting down to chat with their neighbours in their award-winning backyard was a bit of a challenge – out of all the places I’d visited, Prague was the city where learning to speak English hardly seemed like a priority at all. Tomas had only learnt it because he had lived in San Francisco several years ago, but he was definitely in a minority of those who did speak English.

***

I am so lucky that the one language that I do speak afforded me so much opportunity to travel relatively unhindered, but the more I saw of the world, the more my status as a monolingual felt like a handicap. I was insanely jealous as I watched people slip between different tongues so easily – I knew they weren’t saying anything specifically more profound than anything that could have been said in English, but it just felt like there was a wealth of knowledge that I was missing out on. Living in a country like Australia, with no countries with direct borders and no extremely obvious choices of a language to learn that might be useful in your own city, I’d never really considered that learning another language would be such a beneficial skill. Now, after travelling around so many different countries and discovering the complexities of a range and huge variety of languages, it’s become another one of my goals to learn, practice, and eventually become fluent in another language. Which language – for now – is undecided, but I have to thank the many companions and friends I made along the way in Europe for inspiring me, and opening my eyes to the importance of languages, and the highly valuable skill of multilingualism.

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Detour: Bratislava

For a trip that should only have taken approximately three hours, I spent a ridiculously long time getting to Prague from Vienna, but there were many factors I had to consider when planning out my day. The first was that Kathi and Anna-Greta would both be leaving before 9 o’clock in the morning, which meant that I would also have to leave at that time, since I would definitely need to be on a train out of Vienna before either of them finished work. Kathi was catching a tram in the same direction as myself – towards the train station – on her way to work, so when my stop finally came we said our warm, slightly emotional goodbyes, and promised that we would definitely see each other at some point in the future. She been a great girl and had been a lovely host, and I knew I had made the right decision in coming to Vienna and staying with her.

I had my next Couchsurfing hosts lined up for that evening in Prague – however, Tomas had informed me that no one would be home before 5 o’clock, so if I arrived in Prague before then I would have to look after myself until that time came. No big deal, I thought to myself. There was always pretty elementary things to take care of when arriving in a new city or country – for example, the Czech Republic’s currency was Czech crowns, or koruna, not the Euro, so I would have to exchange or withdraw some new money. There was also the possibility that trains would run late, so a three hour journey was still only a very approximate guess.

***

The trains were not running late. Neither was I. However, the train station that I was departing from was not that same one that I had arrived in, and the layout of this new one was very confusing. There was English translations for pretty much everything, but it didn’t help me run any fast when I realised I had made a wrong turn and had three flights of stairs to run up with all my baggage to even make it to the entrance of the platform that I was supposed to be on. I made it just in time… to watch the train I had intended to catch slide out of the platform and down the tracks into the distance. Luckily for me, I hadn’t reserved a place on the train, so there was no financial harm done in missing it. It just meant I had to wait a lot longer at the train station for the next train heading to Prague.

Or did I? I pulled out my iPhone and opened the Eurail app I had downloaded, which has listing of all the train stations on the Europeans rail network, as well as all the different times the trains run. It had saved me before when I was stranded in Hamburg, telling me exactly what trains I needed to catch in order to make to Groningen that same evening, and now it was giving me another piece of alternative advice. I could wait for a few hours at this platform, for the next direct train to Prague, or I could take a detour. There is a regular route from Budapest in Hungary to Berlin, and Prague is one of the stops along the way. That train doesn’t pass through Vienna, but if I jumped on a different train I would be in Bratislava – the capital of Slovakia – in just under an hour, and would be able to intercept the train there. That was the beauty of the flexible Eurail pass I was using – I could catch as many of these unreserved trains as I liked in one day, and it would not cost me any extra as it would have to catch the single train to Prague. And, I got to visit another country and city along the way! All aboard for Eastern Europe!

***

On the train ride to Bratislava, I looked up the city on my Lonely Planet book. “Bratislava was pretty fun,” Rachel had told me during the brief period we had hung out in Madrid, “but you only need a couple of hours to see the main centre, really. Talon and my brothers and I were there at like, four in the morning, I think?” She’d laughed, shaking her head at the stories she was reliving. “It was ridiculous, but it was fun. Check it out if you get the chance.”

Despite having an entire day to get from Vienna to Prague, I didn’t have a couple of hours to spend in Bratislava – then entire length of my layover was about 45 minutes. Even so, that didn’t stop me from running out of the train station and down to the nearest main road to take a few photos as evidence that I had made it this far east. I still had all my luggage strapped to me, so it wasn’t as easy as you may think. Unfortunately, the train station isn’t that close to the historical centre, where all the more beautiful architecture can be found. I didn’t want to venture out into an unfamiliar city where I didn’t speak the language and had a deadline to return to – I didn’t want to miss another train – so I settled for taking photos of some street signs, whatever buildings I could see, and the front of the train station.

Welcome to Bratislava!

Welcome to Bratislava!

Sign pointing me towards the Historical Centre that I was unable to get to.

Sign pointing me towards the Historical Centre that I was unable to get to.

The sole street I walked down from the train station.

The sole street I walked down from the train station.

Slovak billboard - I was limited in the sights I was able to photograph, okay?

Slovak billboard – I was limited in the sights I was able to photograph, okay?

The train station at Bratislava.

The train station at Bratislava.

And a selfie to prove that I didn't just steal these pictures off the Internet.

And a selfie to prove that I didn’t just steal these pictures off the Internet.

***

Then it was back to the station to buy a few snacks before boarding the train to Prague. The train was unlike most of the other ones I’d been on throughout Europe. Rather than being much more open with rows of seats on either side of an aisle, this train was more like the cabins we had on the Trans-Siberian railway. They were closed off compartments with sliding doors, except instead of seats that folded out into beds there were simply six regular seats per compartment. I would later be told by Tomas, one of my hosts in Prague, that that style meant the train was rather old, but it seemed pretty clean and modern to me at the time. I walked down the halls and poked my head into the cabins until I found one that seemed manageable. The curtains were drawn, and there was a young man lying across three of the seats on one side of the cabin, apparently sleeping. On the other side, an young woman who looked about my age sat by herself, looking rather timid. I squeezed in and took the window seat, peeking out the window through a crack in the curtain.

The trip started out quite uneventful. After a while, the sleeping man sat up, rubbed his eyes, and threw open the curtains. He couldn’t have been much older than myself or the other girl who was sitting quietly to my right. He gathered up his things and, without a word to either of us, departed at one of the stops along the way. I can’t say I’m surprised at his silence – in these environments, with the tourists and local travellers thrown in altogether, its pure luck as to whether the people around you even speak your language. He was soon replaced by a family – a mother, father and small child. They would prove to be strange cabin companions, with the little boy being cheeky and misbehaving so much that we witnessed the father lose his temper and repeatedly smack the child. It was a little scary, but I didn’t say anything because I really had no idea if such kind of thing was normal in this part of the world. The child would start crying and wailing, before going back to whatever he had been doing before and earning himself another smack. This exchanged happened periodically throughout the whole journey. However, when they first climbed on board was also the time when someone came around to check our tickets. Mine had already been stamped on the train to Bratislava though, so all I had to do was flash my Eurail pass.

When I pulled out my pass, the eyes of the girl sitting next to me lit up.  I saw her pull out her own Eurail Pass to show the the train attendants, which meant that she had to be a non-European resident. We got chatting after that – Itzel was a traveller from Mexico who was also backpacking around Europe after spending some time studying abroad in France. We got talking about different places we’d been to and where we were going. Itzel had gotten on the train in Budapest, somewhere that was now not on my itinerary but somewhere I had really wanted to see, so she told me all about the city and the things she did there. It sounded like a pretty fun place, and Itzel said she had an awesome time. She was doing the full length of the train route, from Budapest to Berlin, so after that I was my turn to rant and rave about my favourite European city. I told her all about the crazy things I’d done and where she should go, and how to not get turned away from Berghain. She had a hostel booked in advance as well, so I pulled out my Lonely Planet book and showed her the way to get there from the train station.

As it would happen, Itzel had also been to Prague, so she told me as much as she could about the city. “It’s a cute city, pretty small, and it’s easy to get around with the public transport. And of course there’s the castle.” I’d heard a lot of good things about Prague, but I guess I would be finding it all out for myself in a few hours. Itzel and I continued to talk the entire journey – I could hardly believe how much time had passed when my stop crept up on us. I said my goodbyes to Itzel, but we exchanged contact details just in case our paths crossed again in Europe, or if I ever found myself in Mexico on my future travels. I really enjoy the way travel brings people together like that – maybe I won’t see Itzel for months or years. Perhaps I’ll never see her again. But for that shared moment of travel we became the best of friends, and the train trip to Prague would have been quite boring without her.

One Friend, Two Friends: Old Friend, New Friends

When Kathi and I returned from our excursion on the river, we parted ways for our separate plans that afternoon. She had a date, and I actually had another friend who lived in Vienna whose birthday, as it happened, was that very day. It’s not everyday that you accidentally arrive in your friends city on the other side of the world on their birthday weekend, so we had made plans to catch up for a drink to celebrate both his birthday and my being in Austria.

I’d originally contacted Stephen asking if I might be able to crash with him when I was in Vienna, but unfortunately he didn’t have any room for me in the place that he lived in with his girlfriend. Luckily things had worked out through Couchsurfing in the end, and I just met up with him on the afternoon of his birthday instead. I had met Stephen when I was studying at university – he was on an exchange semester at The University of Sydney, and we sat next to each other in one of our philosophy tutorials. Now, almost exactly a year later, we were sitting at a beach-themed bar on the side of the Danube in the middle of the city, catching up and reminiscing and soaking up the sun. I say afternoon, but it was actually closer to 7pm – what I would have typically called “evening”. But this was European summer, and if we measured parts of the day by how much daylight the had, “afternoon” wouldn’t end until approximately 10:30pm. I ordered another Radler and sat down to tell Stephen more about my travels, and what I was planning to do next, both short-term and long-term. “You could always get a working visa and come back to Europe to teach English,” he had suggested. “I know of a lot of places that are always looking for native English speakers to help adult students perfect the language, especially places in Austria and Germany.” Scenarios flashed through my mind of living in Berlin, teaching English to the locals during the week, and spending my weekends on the dance floor or in a dark corner at Berghain. I could definitely think of worse ways to spend my life, but at that stage I was thinking as little as possible about my life after my year of travelling. I’d been on the road for months now, and I wasn’t even halfway through my journey.

Our mugs of beer and Radler in the Viennese sunshine.

Our mugs of beer and Radler in the Viennese sunshine.

Stephen and I.

Stephen and I.

Eventually Stephen had to go, so I wished him a happy birthday one last time as we bid each other farewell. I hadn’t drank too much, and I ended up just heading back to Kathi’s, but that night was still rather significant. After all the travelling I’d done in the past few months, that conversation with Stephen had planted a seed in my mind, an idea in my head – the idea of living abroad. Every following city that I visited, and every time I cast my memory back to the places I’d visited, it wasn’t a question of whether I liked the city or not, but rather, ‘Could I live in this city?’

***

The following day was my final one in Vienna, and since Kathi had to work for most of the day I figured it would be the best opportunity to do my loop around the tourist ring and see some of attractions Vienna had to offer. The inner city, or Innere Stadt, of Vienna is a designated Unesco World Heritage site, and the architecture easily takes you back to centuries past. I wandered the streets and got a little bit lost, just soaking up in the atmosphere as I strolled past the coffeehouses and other eateries and watched the flocks of other tourists come and go.

One of the older buildings on one of the quieter streets in the city centre.

One of the older buildings on one of the quieter streets in the city centre.

Some more classical looking architecture I stumbled upon in my exploring.

Some more classical looking architecture I stumbled upon in my exploring.

A lot of the major sights are situated along a tram line that does a consistent ring around the city centre, but after I finally made my way out from getting lost in the Old Town streets, I decided that it was such a nice and beautiful sunny day that I would walk around the ring, instead of staying cooped up on the public transport. Some of the highlights of the sightseeing in Vienna were Stephansdom, or St. Stephens Cathedral, a 12th Century Gothic church that towered above the streets, and the impressive neo-Greek architecture of the Austrian Parliament Building, complete with a gold trimmed fountain depicting the goddess Athena, with the four figures around the base of the fountain representing the four most important rivers in the old Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Stephansdom looking overhead.

Stephansdom looking overhead.

The Austrian Parliament Building.

The Austrian Parliament Building.

The statue of Athena in front of the Parliament Building.

The statue of Athena in front of the Parliament Building.

I didn’t take too many photos, but then I didn’t know too much about all the different sights in Vienna. It was kind of better that way, I think. There was no pressure to see all the important things, like their had been to visit the greatest hits of Rome. I was able to just meander around, stopping when I saw something I thought was interesting, taking the odd picture here and there, strolling through the greenery in the various city parks and just enjoying the relaxing atmosphere the city had to offer. I laid down in grass and had a snooze, had a slice of cake at a coffeehouse – it was all just so chilled out that it didn’t even feel like sightseeing. It just felt like living.

***

In the late afternoon I met up with Kathi and one of her housemates who had returned the previous evening, Anna-Greta. Kathi had suggested meeting at Naschmarkt, a popular market that had all kinds of amazing foods and fresh fruit and produce, as well as flea market stalls that were selling all kinds of things. Unfortunately I didn’t have much need for all that food, since I’d be jumping on another train to a new city the following day, but it was interesting to check out. Kathi and Anna-Greta bought a few things, and then we sat down to have some food at one of the restaurants that was set up along the market. We ate Thai food – something I hadn’t seen since Thailand – and I told them how popular it was in Australia, and we discussed other cultural differences between Austria and Australia. My favourite moment, however, was when it took us at least a few minutes to translate the word “bruise” from German to English. I thought something was seriously strange when they were telling me how they sometimes got “blue stains” on their skin – it still makes me chuckle when I think about it.

After we’d finished eating, the three of us just hung out at home for the rest of the evening. Anna-Greta had been partying all weekend at a big festival, and all three of us had to get up relatively early the next day, so we didn’t feel like heading out anywhere. Kathi and I pulled out our ukuleles and Anna-Greta grabbed her guitar, and I gave them a couple of lessons and taught them some chords to be able to play a few new songs. I introduced Kathi to Paramore, whose most recent album has a couple of ukulele tracks that I had learnt how to play. She loved the music, and was pretty stoked when I taught her how to play ‘Interlude: Moving On’, and we also learnt how to play ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’, a challenge that Kathi’s other housemate had set for her. Then we just sat around chatting, and the girls told me about parties that they throw, and the music that they play and all the fun that they have, and it made me a little sad to be leaving the next day. “You’ll just have to come back next time we have a party,” Kathi said with a grin. “And at the end of the night we can run around being crazy while we play the ‘Spanish Flea’.” We all laughed, and I smiled to myself, sincerely hoping that one day that would actually happen. I’d made some great friends during my travels so far, and there wasn’t a doubt in my mind that some of those people such as Kathi – despite the distance – would remain my friends for life.

Down the Danube

Thankfully, unlike my trek from Ancona to Zürich, I only had to catch one train to get me to Austria. I did have to travel from the western tip to the eastern tip of the country though, but travelling through the mountainous terrain did provide some pretty spectacular, picture perfect views. After the long day of travel I finally arrived in the beautiful city of Vienna and was greeted by my next Couchsurfing host. Kathi was the first female that I was staying with whom I had connected with through Couchsurfing – Susanna in Finland had been a family friend – but I had still found her within my search for hosts in the Queer Couchsurfing group. Robin had showed me how Couchsurfing can be used not just to find places to stay, but also to connect with people who had common interests. I decided that I would probably feel more comfortable staying with gay people while I was travelling, since most of my friends back home are gay, and they would be able to show me some of the queer hotspots – but up until now I had only stayed with other guys. It wasn’t a conscious choice – I think there were just more male hosts available, in general – but when I’d stumbled across Kathi’s profile I’d gotten a really good feeling from it, and she had happily accepted my request to stay with her. I had been tossing up between trying to visit Vienna, or travelling slightly more north to visit Holger – who I met in Barcelona – in Munich, but I had had trouble getting in touch with him, so once again my potential Couchsurfing host had been a real game changer in the direction of my travels.

View of the Austrian countryside as I sped towards Vienna in a train.

View of the Austrian countryside as I sped towards Vienna in a train.

There was a kind and carefree air about Kathi from the moment I met her at the train station. She was also relatively new to Couchsurfing, so she was pretty excited about having me stay with her. I think the fact that I was Australian helped win over a lot of my hosts – to all of them I must have seemed exceptionally foreign and exotic, all the way from that mysterious land down under. She explained some of the culture of Vienna and the basics of the city to me – such as the ringed town layout and the different zones – while we got caught the metro to her apartment, which she shared with two roommates. “The coffeehouse culture is a really big thing in Vienna”, she advised me. “That’s something most people want to check out. The centre Vienna is divided up into rings, in particularly the main ring that encloses the city centre. Most of the things you’ll want to see or do will be there.” I wondered how I would have coped on this trip I hadn’t had hosts like Kathi, Umer, Ike and Valerio to help know these things about their various cities. I imagine I would have done a lot of unintentional aimless wandering around – as opposed to a lot of the intentional aimless wandering around that I still did.

It was a Friday afternoon the day that I arrived in Vienna, and both of of Kathi’s housemates were away for the weekend. One of them wouldn’t bet returning until after I left, so rather than sleep on the couch in her bedroom, Kathi told me that she would sleep in her housemates room, so and that I could sleep in her bed and have the room to myself. It was more than I had been expecting when I had sent the request to Kathi, and it was probably one of the best set ups I’d had through Couchsurfing so far. As soon as we got to Kathi’s, I had a well needed shower – the countryside views through the Austrian mountains had been postcard-worthy beautiful, but the 7 hour trip had left me feeling less than fresh. “Be careful with the water temperature”, Kathi had said as I entered the bathroom. “It tends to just alternate between… Antarctica and Mordor.” I laughed, appreciating the reference. After the shower I joined my new host in the kitchen. “Are you hungry? I was thinking I could show you how to cook some traditional Austrian food, maybe.” I assured her that her national cuisine of schnitzel had made it down to Australia, but all the same it was fun to help out in the kitchen and do some cooking. We cooked the schnitzel and vegetables, and she introduced me to an Austrian drink called Radler. “It’s basically beer mixed with lemonade,” she said, placing a bottle in front of me. “You can mix yourself or buy it like this.” It was a little fizzy from the added soft drink, but the taste was extremely refreshing, the sweetness balancing our the flavour of the beer perfectly, and I enjoyed it much more than the Rivella I had tried in Switzerland. We sat and ate and chatting, getting to know each other as we downed a few bottles of Radler.

Kathi was particularly interested in picking my brains about the gay culture down in Australia. “What’s it like for gay girls in Sydney? Here, it can be really difficult for…” She was choosing her words carefully. “For more… feminine, girls. Like… sometimes I’m never really sure… You know, of where – and who – they are?” I realised she was talking about her gaydar – her ability to identify other queer people on sight alone. I must admit, the more feminine lesbians have always been the least obvious blips on my gaydar, but luckily stopping them had never been quite such a pertinent issue for myself. Kathi went on to tell me that queer girls also had less places to meet people, citing the recent pride festivities in Vienna, where there had been multiple parties aimed at all the gay men, and only one event that specifically targeted same-sex attracted females. I had to regretfully tell her that gender ratio of gay bars and parties in Sydney was of a similar level, though I won’t pretend I know much about the lesbian scene – not for the first time I pondered on the curious fact that the party scenes for gay guys and gay girls were so divided in the first place.

We continued to talk for hours about gay life, travelling and Couchsurfing, and even music. Kathi was learning how to play the ukulele, so as part of the condition of me staying with her I had promised her that I would show her a few tips I had picked up along the way. I was only teaching myself, but as an acoustic guitar player of nearly 10 years I didn’t have too much difficultly figuring it out. But before it we knew it, it had gotten quite late, so I said goodnight to Kathi and hit the hay after the exhausting day of travelling.

***

The next day, at Kathi’s suggestion, we caught the train north of her rather centrally located apartment to the banks of the Danube River. It was a gorgeous sunny day, and we had lunch at a little restaurant next to the river that served some excellent Austrian dishes, and of course, more Radler. That wasn’t the most exciting part about this restaurant though – after we had finished eating, I followed Kathi down to the small jetty that was actually a part of the restaurant. There, we hired a small electric motorboat and went for a cruise down the river. “There’s some nice views of the city from the water. Perhaps we could bring our ukulele’s and have a sing-a-long, or something?” Kathi had suggested the previous evening before we had gone to bed. I had told her that that sounded absolutely marvellous, so once we got out on the river I pulled out my ukulele and started strumming away.

The view of the city from out on the Danube.

The view of the city from out on the Danube.

The sunshine was streaming down on us as I worked my way through the small repertoire of songs that I had managed to teach myself over the last few months, and Kathi steered the boat up the river. We passed a couple areas that were substitute beaches for the Austrians – the idea of living in a landlocked country with no nearby coastal area still seemed so odd to me – but I have to say, they weren’t as nice as the riverside swimming areas in Zürich, probably because the water in the Danube wasn’t quite clean enough to be drinking quality. But it was still beautiful, and Kathi told me how she often comes down here to bathe in the sun and go for a swim. When we reached a wider part of the river, Kathi killed the engine and we just floated for a little while, watching others glide by us on their paddle boats, and soaking it all in while I strummed away on the ukulele. “It’s so nice,” Kathi said between songs, with a huge smile plastered across her face. “It’s just a nice, holiday feeling, to have the ukulele going in the background while we’re out on the water in the sun.” It was no tropical island getaway, she but was right. Kathi didn’t even end up playing her ukulele, and in the end I was just playing random chords to give the scene a nice and cheerful soundtrack. On our way back to the jetty we passed many boats full of other people, both locals and tourists, and they all smiled at us or exclaimed with delight when they saw or heard the ukulele. It really did feel like a scene from a movie, or even a travel brochure, but it was so much fun, and I couldn’t have thought of a better way to spend the afternoon.

Kathi took a sneaky photograph of me while I was playing the ukulele.

Kathi took a sneaky photograph of me while I was playing the ukulele.