Trail Magic

Trail magic seems much more magical when traveling alone. Since you have only yourself to entertain, serendipitous experiences are that much more delightful. And since you have only yourself to look out for, when things work out against whatever odds, you feel that much more triumphant.

I am speaking from my recent experience solo-journeying around Hungary. While it was not my first solitary trip, it was certainly the longest and my first in a country where I don’t know the language. Granted, Hungary is a developed country, so I wasn’t really “roughing it” on my own. But still.

The trip was an all-around success, and I enjoyed the opportunity to do whatever I wanted and to stick to, or break, my own agenda. However, of course, no trip goes perfectly, and I ran into a few road bumps…until trail magic saved the day.

First, my best meal of the trip magically appeared.

Hungary is not exactly renowned for its cuisine. Although I ate a couple tasty meals of wild boar goulash, Hungary doesn’t rank high on my list of international dining experiences. But one meal really made my day.

I had been wandering around Budapest all morning, and by lunch had walked myself into an intense hunger. I happened to be on one of Pest’s pedestrian streets, which is lined with restaurants. Unfortunately, this street also happened to be a tourist trap. All the restaurants lauded their traditional goulashes, but at tourist prices (i.e., high). While only the third day of my trip, I was already weary of the tourist trap, so after a few blocks and no appealing option in sight, I took a desperate, random turn off the street in hopes of finding something off the beaten path. As I continued a couple blocks more, my hunger and desperation only grew.

Then, as though the universe understood, there it was: The Veggy Corner. Perfect. I was craving a vegetarian meal, and there were no tourists in sight. When I entered the restaurant, my eyes lit up brighter–it was an Indian food buffet run by what seemed to be Budapest’s “crunchy” crowd (my kind of people), and it was cheap! Best of all, the food did not disappoint; it was hands-down my best meal in Hungary. (I later found out the restaurant’s owners are Hare Krishnas, which made me wonder if there really was a spiritual force drawing me to it.)

Second, I magically found some drinking buddies.

I took a day trip to a town called Eger, which is known for its Valley of the Beautiful Women, a cluster of wine cellars on its outskirts that sell wine from the region (Hungary is a wine country). Upon arriving in Eger that morning, I met a trio of young Israeli women who had also come for the day. While we found our way from the train station to the city center together, I decided to part from them to wander around alone before heading to the Valley, with the mutually tentative suggestion we meet up there later.

Fast forward to later, I was sipping my first glass of red wine and the women found me. I thought to myself, “Oh good, now I have drinking buddies and I won’t look suspiciously like an alcoholic drinking my way through the cellars alone.” Personal dilemma averted. Thank you trail magic.

My third magical occasion happened in Sopron, a small town at Hungary’s border with Austria that touts a beautifully preserved (albeit a bit desolate) medieval city center. (Amusingly, most of the town’s visitors are Austrians who come for cheap dental work.) It was my last day of the trip, and not only was I a bit trail-weary, the day was dampened by a cold autumn rain. I had planned to just walk about for the day, but the weather rendered that activity unenjoyable. As I meandered the cobbled streets, slowly getting drenched by the drizzle, I passed a sign for an art exhibition. And from what I could tell (it was in Hungarian), it was free. An excellent excuse to get out of the rain, I thought.

The exhibition was indeed free, and the art, paintings and sculptures by local artists, was exquisite (at least, according to my unrefined taste). If I were richer, I would have seriously considered buying a couple of the paintings. While I am no art nut, the exhibition was one of my more enjoyable gallery experiences…although the weather and serendipity of the find may have sweetened it a bit.

Finally, my most magical experience was my successful attempt to ride a horse in Hungary. My Lonely Planet led me to believe Hungarians are horse-crazy people. While horses didn’t seem to be as salient in the Hungarian psyche as the book made them out to be, as a horse-crazy person myself, I had firmly decided I wanted to ride during my trip. (My AirBnB hostess in Budapest suspected Hungary has the horse crazy reputation because of the crazy horsemanship skills of their Magyar ancestors).

The beginning of my horse-riding adventure proved to be adventurous indeed, and had I not been so determined, I might have abandoned the endeavor.

Upon arriving in Sopron, I immediately made my way to the tourist office for information about where I could ride. At first, the woman working there had no idea (despite Lonely Planet‘s assurance the tourist office would know). But gradually, ideas came to her, and she sent me off with a few brochures…all in Hungarian.

After checking into my pension, I recruited the help of the guy at reception. While the task seemed to cause him a little stress (it was possible this was because we could only communicate in German, a second language for us both), he successfully booked me a ride at a farm about six kilometers outside of town. I would have to navigate the bus system to get there. But he meticulously gave me all the details I would need, and with a heart full of hope and trust in the universe, I set out to ride.

Unfortunately I chose to ride the bus at the time when all the high school students were going home from school. It was interesting to observe the behavior of Hungarian teenagers (it’s much like that of American ones), but riding a bus filled to the brim with them was not particularly enjoyable. And as the aisle grew more crowded with subsequent stops, a large and very smelly man was pushed my way and stood right over me. I wondered what the hell I had gotten myself into.

Once I arrived at my stop, the bus driver vaguely pointed me in the right direction of the farm, and I warily proceeded onward. I found my way to something that resembled a farm and asked whomever I could find (by pointing to the name of the farm on a piece of scrap paper) if I was in the right place. It turned out the farm was actually part of some sort of resort where people go to get plastic surgery.

Having confirmed I was in the right place, I just needed to figure out who I had to meet. This took me another ten minutes and required asking five different resort employees, until I found one that led me to where I had to go. I breathed a sigh of relief and thanked the universe–I made it.

And my perseverance was rewarded. I had exactly the riding experience I was hoping for. While my horse and I had a bit of a rocky start, as I was re-assimilating to being in the saddle, and she was assimilating to my rusty horsemanship, we ended up connecting and had a lovely ride together. She was a very alert and curious horse, turning her head left and right throughout the ride to check out what was going on around us. A curious creature myself, I appreciated this about her. My guide, a short man who spoke no English and very little German, seemed to be the stern, but gentle type. I quietly delighted when he lit and smoked two cigarettes during our two hour ride (not because I like smoking, but because I found it amusing).

And then there was the landscape. We rode through rolling fields, vineyards and autumn forests. It was exactly the natural experience I had been craving since arriving in Hungary (thus far, my trip had been an entirely urban adventure). It was an unforgettable, trail-magical experience.


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Survivor: Oktoberfest, episode 3 (the final one)

While the Oktoberfest dust has finally settled (although the fest complex is still under deconstruction), I still feel compelled to finish this trilogy. In this episode, I will recant bits of my experience inside the beer tents…where the party really happens.

Munich’s six major breweries host fourteen beer tents. They may call them “tents,” but tents they are not. Most of the de-constructable wooden structures are made to look like centuries-old Alpine chalets (their appearances belie how quickly they were constructed), and some look more like sports arenas. Regardless, all are huge with capacities in the thousands. Here’s a handy guide to the tents.

Beer tent example. Image by DerHexer, Wikimedia Commons

The construction for this beer village began (from what I can recall) back in July (though it might have been June). It was fascinating to watch the village grow and evolve over those months. Each time I passed by Theresienwiese, something new had popped up–a roller coaster here, a beer tent there. I am sure a photo time lapse of the Wiesn’s construction exists somewhere out there, but I am too lazy to look for one.

If the walls of the tents could talk, I can only imagine the tomes of stories they could tell.

I ended up going to Oktoberfest four times over its 16 days, and I got to experience the three different faces of its party: morning, afternoon, and night.

I will say the morning, perhaps the more authentic of the experiences, was my favorite. The crowd was much sparser and more civilized. Most “early” morning festers go to eat the traditional Bavarian breakfast: Weisswurst, Breze, und Bier (white sausages, pretzel, and beer). I appreciated how accepted it was to drink a liter of beer before noon.

A tamer time inside a beer tent. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

The rowdiness starts to rise with the afternoon shift. Then, each tent’s band begins their long day of playing their shared repertoire of Bavarian oompapa, traditional Oktoberfest tunes, and pop songs you typically hear either on the dance floor at American weddings or on 80s and 90s radio stations. Needless to say, the music gets better the more you drink.

The afternoon is also when the crowds begin to really pour in. Since you are only guaranteed a seat if you have a ticket (which you or your company must have purchased months in advance), it can be a struggle to either nab a table or get in the door. On the busiest days, mobs of people have to wait their turn outside to join the fun inside. I have heard if you are female and are wearing a “well-fitting” Dirndl, it is much easier to convince the bouncers to let you in. Typical.

Inside, the beer flows freely, dissolving inhibitions and lubricating singing voices. As more beer flows, people begin standing (sometimes precariously) on the benches–sitting becomes a silly idea, not that you would really want to sit on the (by then) beer drenched and muddied benches anyway. By the night shift, many of the tents become a joyous riot.

A rowdier moment inside a tent. Image by Diego Delso, Wikimedia Commons.

On the only night I experienced the late shift, my friends and I entered our first tent completely sober, and it was quite a shock to witness the tent’s contents in a clear state of mind. The air was heavy with body heat. The mass of people made it nearly impossible to move. People were dancing in the isles and attempting to dance on the benches, all the while singing at the top of their lungs. Fortunately it didn’t take us too long to find empty benches, although our waiter herded us quite gruffly onto them–it was clear he knew how to handle drunk people, but was probably sick of it.

As I sipped my first Mass, I couldn’t help but just stare in (somewhat troubled) awe at the spectacle of humanity around me. Really, I don’t think I quite have the words to describe it accurately. A fight nearly broke out at a table near us, and all I could think was what a chaotic mess that could cause (fortunately the fight fizzled quickly). At the table behind us, a poor inebriated soul sat with his head on the table, sleeping, while his buddies all danced and sang around him. I tried to drown my rising concern for human dignity with my beer.

But by the second tent and second Mass, the night became much more fun. Suddenly the songs became much more enjoyable, it was way funnier to watch the stupidly drunk people do their stupidly drunk things, and it really did seem silly to be sitting on the bench when you could be standing and singing with everyone else.

So, in the end, I survived Oktoberfest. And it really was as they said: you can’t survive, or enjoy, Oktoberfest without drinking beer. Well, I can check that one off my bucket list. “Ein Prosit” to that.

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Surivor: Oktoberfest, episode 2

The Wiesn outside the beer tents is quite a spectacle. Curiosity led me to take a stroll (sober) around it on one of Oktoberfest’s traditionally busiest days (the second Saturday) to get a better big-picture view of the event. Drizzle dampened the day, but certainly not the fest-goers spirits. By the time I had arrived, around 1pm, the drunken revelry was ripe.

I think when King Ludwig I first declared Oktoberfest, he had no idea what it would become. While it began as a party to  celebrate his marriage to Princess Therese and thereafter evolved into an annual fest around a horse race, the end of the race tradition in 1960 catapulted the event into the display of commercialism and debauchery it is today.

Oktoberfest circa 1900 looked quite innocent.

Oktoberfest now is really just a huge carnival that can easily overload your senses. It’s not only its highly alcoholic beer that can make you dizzy, but so could its flashy carnival rides with names such as Top Spin, Techno Power, and Flip Fly. Blaring music accompanies and keeps tempo with each ride; e.g., “Will you be my girl” was the tune for an older, more traditional ride involving swinging pirate ships, while techno music powered the nerves of those on the wilder rides.

A birds-eye view of Oktoberfest now. Image by Mummelgrummel

People’s intoxicated reflexes and aim are tested at carnival games–most of which seemed to be some form of “shoot the [insert object].” Vendors try to lure your gaze with ueber-kitsch–from Lebkuchenherzen (inedible, but colorfully decorated heart-shaped cookies) to Bierkruege (inaccurately called Biersteins by Americans), stuffed Bavarian cows to “I survived Oktoberfest” t-shirts–which I imagine seem more enticing the drunker you are. And the smells of roasted nuts and sausage hang in the air, teasing you into a case of the munchies, whether drunk or sober (the smells coaxed me into buying a chocolate-covered banana, which was unfortunately not as tasty as I’d hoped).

Lebkuchenherzen. But don’t eat them. Image by Rado Bahna

Then there are the random, ad-hoc “side shows” that naturally occur in a crowd of drunk people. I watched one man try to unsuccessfully lug his incredibly intoxicated and rather rotund friend, who was slumped in a stupor on the ground, to his feet. An ambulance parted the crowd, and one jovial chap tried to impress his friends by hitching a ride on the back of it. A constant crowd hovers around a ride that entails burly men pulling fest-goers up a conveyer belt, so they can ride a mat down a large slide. The audience is most amused by the cocky male fest-goers who don’t think they need any help getting on the conveyer belt–more often than not, they really did need the help.

Needless to say, after about 45 minutes, my senses were sufficiently over-loaded and I needed to abandon the Wiesn quickly. Once again, the warnings were right–it’s really only fun if you’re drunk (or under the age of 12 and too captivated by the shininess of your surroundings to care).

In the next, and last, episode of Survivor: Oktoberfest, I describe the experience of the beer tents.

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Survivor: Oktoberfest, episode 1

“You can’t survive Oktoberfest without drinking beer.”

Several people have told me this over the past few days. And they are so right.

Oktoberfest, Munich’s annual celebration of beer, Bavarian-ness and debauchery, started last weekend. I still have to survive it for nine more days.

I say “surviving” somewhat literally. I live a block and a half away from the fest grounds (a.k.a. the Wiesn).

I found this picture from a previous Oktoberfest on Wikimedia. It’s the view towards the Wiesn from my street, at the intersection a half-block from my building.

My street is a main thoroughfare for fest-goers. From morning til night (or, rather, very early the next morning), streams of people wearing Dirndl and Lederhosen flow down my street; by about 6pm those streams turn into raging rivers of people…drunk people…slurring, staggering, stumbling, singing, arm-in-arm, drunk-friend-holding-up-drunker-friend, drunk people. Leaving my house is usually an upstream struggle.

But wait, it gets worse.

I also live across the street from a hostel, one that has a tendency to get rowdy even when it’s not Oktoberfest. Its rowdiness caliber has increased at least threefold this week.

It gets worse still.

Next to the hostel is a restaurant that hosts an “after-party” every night of Oktoberfest. So, to fall asleep, I must tune out the din of pulsing dance beats and drunken chatter, and the occasional outbursts of song from drunk men (always men) or ambulance sirens (Munich’s emergency fleet has certainly had their work cut out for them this week).

I am desperately trying to stay in the spirit and hold onto the perspective of “what an interesting cultural experience this is.” But I have accepted I will be sleep deprived for at least another nine days.

And, following locals’ warnings, I have made sure to drink the beer. I mean, I have to survive.

In the next episode of “Survivor: Oktoberfest,” I will offer a glimpse into what it’s like on the Wiesn.

Image by Usien/Wikimedia

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An encounter with an old man in a park

Sometimes the briefest encounters in life can leave incommensurately larger impressions on you. I recently had one such encounter.

I was spending the afternoon in Schlosspark Nymphenburg, the gargantuan backyard of the former Bavarian royal family’s excessive “summer palace” (now an urban park). I had gone to do “research” for an article I am attempting to write. So, naturally, my notebook and pen were in my hand throughout the afternoon, and I erratically stopped here and there to take notes.

On one such occasion, I had stopped in the middle of a wooded path, unaware of the curiousness of this action. As I was scribbling, I heard footsteps behind me slow and then stop right next to me.

I looked up to the smiling face of an elderly man. He immediately exclaimed, “Oh, Sie schreiben in einem Tagesbuch!” (Oh, you’re writing in a journal!)

I smiled hesitantly and answered a mere, “Ja,” afraid he would ask me more questions, thus forcing me to reveal my still-poor German speaking ability.

Then, without hesitation, he asked me if I would like to accompany him on his way to the palace.

In a split second I weighed my options. This old man—with his glasses, visible tooth work, and old-man uniform of khaki shorts, white socks, and a slightly baggy striped polo short—didn’t look predatory. So he probably meant no harm. But, aside from the fact I was not walking in the direction of the palace, my gut instinct compelled me to answer, “Nein danke, ich gehe allein.” (No thanks, I’ll go alone.) Then I told him to have a nice day in the nicest smile I could muster from my perplexity of his invitation, so that it didn’t seem like I thought he was just a creepy old man hitting on a young woman in the middle of a heavily wooded park.

He didn’t seem offended by my decline, just a bit disappointed, and he wished me a good day in return.

As I watched him walk away, I actually found myself feeling bad that I had turned him down. I wondered two things: why did he want to walk with me to the palace, and why was my instinctual reaction “no.”

While I will never know the answer to my first question, I think the answer to the second one has something to do with the distrust in strange men that has been socially engrained in me, for better or worse. Even a kind-looking, curious elderly man is still a stranger and triggers the self-protection instinct.

But, still, I wondered if this encounter had become a lost moment to make a random, but meaningful connection. If I had accepted his invitation, would we have had this unforgettable, life-altering conversation? Or would we have awkwardly fumbled through chit-chat? Or would he have turned out to be really just a creepy man, whose age gives him the façade of kindness?

As I am writing this post, reliving the encounter in my head, I am led to ponder whether we sometimes just look for meaning in fleeting encounters—whether or not any is actually there—in an effort to feel connected to people. Or, at the risk of being over-philosophical, perhaps the randomness of life is what you make of it.

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Das Bauernleben: A first glimpse of life on a Bavarian farm

This weekend I got my first taste of farm life in Bavaria. I WWOOFed for a small farm about an hour outside of Munich. Here are some of my first impressions.

The farm, which has been in the family for generations, is now primarily a horse and cattle operation, with a flock of chickens for kicks (although, I didn’t get to meet the cattle, as they are currently “summering” in Alpine meadows). The current generation of farmers is a young-ish couple with Gerber-baby-adorable eight-month-old twins. One member of the previous generation also lives there: the father of the husband, a relatively silent, old man who spent most of the time sitting around swatting flies, but showed up punctually for every meal.

The farm considers itself “Demeter,” which is the strictest level of organic (or “bio,” as the Germans call it) farming in Germany. In a nutshell, it follows the rules of biodynamic farming as proposed by Rudolf Steiner, the same guy who started the Waldorf schools. Demeter principles include planting according to cosmic rhythms, acute attention to nurturing the soil without chemical inputs, localized production and distribution, and the respectful treatment of animals.

My first, first impression is that farming reminds you of the limits and capabilities of your body in a way many people don’t normally experience in today’s “modern” world. As someone who sits at a desk to make her living, I was reminded mostly of my body’s limits. In fact, as I type this blog, I am wincing from a pain in my arm I acquired from lifting too many heavy loads of horse poop with a shovel. Despite this, I found the sensation (and the results) of physically pushing myself to get a job done to be quite satisfying.

Secondly, the experience revealed the importance of community-building within a farm. Everyone has to pitch in to get everything done, from mucking out the stalls to drying the dishes. The community also encompasses other farms in the area. I learned my host farm is part of a Demeter cow cooperative, of sorts; that is, the farms share the responsibility of rearing and tending the cows, as well as the fruits of the labor: meat and dairy products. They also share equipment and knowledge, as they have regular meetings (with other Demeter farmers) to discuss biodynamic methods and principles. Evidence of this sense of community lay in the warm atmosphere of the party my hosts held the night I was there, at which the cooperative’s farmers were in attendance; as well as in the hurried group effort to move some newly-cut hay into shelter, so it wouldn’t get soaked (and, thus, ruined) by a quickly approaching storm on my first afternoon.

Third, Bavarian farm houses–or rather, farm complexes–are so cool (for lack of a more eloquent superlative). While my host farm’s house is not the most spectacular of those I have seen from the outside, I finally got a chance to see one from the inside. Many Bavarian farm houses are huge and shelter both the people and the animals–that is, the people live on one side, and the animals (usually the cows) live on the other side or in a wing, of sorts. (Unfortunately, I don’t own a camera, so I can’t provide pictures for a visual explanation.) I wondered what this physical connection between human and animal living space does to the farmers’ mentality around their relationship with animals.

Fourth, I guess I never realized how rigid the day’s work schedule on a farm must be. There seem to be certain windows of the day in which various tasks can, or must, be done. For example, the horses must be fed at certain times and their stalls mucked frequently. This brings a rhythm to the day I don’t experience at my desk job. Also, not once did I find myself losing focus and thinking, “I wonder what’s happening on Facebook right now.”

Finally, the experience exemplified how trusting and welcoming people are capable of being towards strangers. Not only did I trust my host farmers to keep me safe and relatively cared for while under their roof, they trusted me to be respectful of their household and their property and warmly included me into their family and community.

I will be interested to see how my thinking about farm life might change, or not change, the more I experience it.

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What does shaving my legs have to do with saving the planet?

This weekend I went shopping and shaved my legs.

To those of you who don’t know me, you might be thinking to yourself, “That’s not interesting. That sounds like a normal weekend to me.”

But to those of you who do know me, you know that is abnormal behavior for me. Not only do I abhor shopping, but I have not shaved my legs in four years.

Why am I blogging about this? Because I am fascinated by what motivated me to commit these abnormal behaviors: social norms.

In other words, my abnormal behavior is actually normal for most people, and therefore I felt compelled to change in order to fit in.

An affluent city, Munich is crawling with trendy people. Thus, since arriving, I have felt like a frumpy American with my slowly out-dating wardrobe, which has motivated me to acquire the trendy European look.

As for the shaving, sure, both German and American women shave their legs. So the normative pressure to do so is no different here than when I was in the US. But what probably motivated me to “become normal” in Germany is tied to my self-consciousness as “foreign” and my desire to draw as little attention to myself as possible.

So, what does shaving my legs have to do with saving the planet?

My prosaic anecdote was intended to set the stage for what I really want to talk about: social norms and environmental behavior. If we apply social norms to motivating people to adopt planet-friendly habits, they can work pretty much the same way.

In fact, there is a growing body of research to back this up. Perhaps the most well-known scholar to unearth the power of norms in environmental behavior change is psychologist Robert Cialdini. For example, he and his colleagues found social norms to be the strongest push for Californians to use less energy in their homes and for hotel patrons to opt to reuse their towels to save water and energy.

Social norms are not just an American thing. German researchers found that, in a variety of contexts, Germans were most influenced by the people around them in their environmental behavior choices, and a Michigan State researcher suggested peer pressure motivated Chinese farmers to convert cropland back to forests.

If we all were to do a little self reflecting, we might recognize how our own behavior–environmentally related or not–has been influenced by our family, friends, colleagues, neighbors and community members. If social norms continue to prove to be a potent factor in encouraging environmental behavior, the possibilities for creating a mainstream transformation in how humans treat the planet are abundant (I think so, at least).

That said, I do recognize the irony that both shopping and shaving aren’t considered “environmentally friendly” activities…

Further Reading

Shaping Pro-Environment Behaviors

Social Norms & Social Networks

“Social Norms: An Underestimate and Underemployed Lever for Managing Climate Change”

Social norm strategies do work — but there are risks involved”


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