Friday, May 30, 2008

Back in the USA

For at least a little while. No fear, though, the blog will continue. Actually I've been doing quite a bit of writing this week, cranking out the pages for On the Road Shoulder, the memoir of my hike of the East Coast. Other goings on in the states include six Rotary Club speeches over the next few weeks to continue to raise funds for the Fisher House Foundation, my fifth college reunion this weekend, a good amount of family tree research, and working at the National Academic Championship in Chicago (a high school quiz bowl tournament). I will continue to update at least once a week, but expect short entries like this one as I am rather busy.

Sunday, May 25, 2008


I have always been one to, for better or worse, swing for the fences in life. And so it was, in a fit of delirium after my smashing success at the Miami Marathon back in January, that I somehow thought I would be up for doing a half ironman triathlon in May, followed by a full one in September.
But oh, was I ever in for a wake up call yesterday. I had somehow thought that a half ironman would be just a little more work than doing a full marathon, and that the endurance capacity I had acquired from hiking and running would translate well into swimming and biking skills, despite my near total lack of training in those two disciplines.
Needless to say, the fact that my last competitive swim race was when I was ten at the Ridgewood 5th Grade Olympics and the fact that I have never before done a competitive bike race showed through. Especially since, despite it being only a half ironman, all of the other competitors seemed orders of magnitude more serious than the far more democratic and diverse crowd that I saw at both the Miami and Vienna marathons earlier this year. Still, I got through the 1.2 mile swim and the 56 mile bike ride okay. The bike ride in particular took me along the Danube, through the beautiful Wachau wine country in Lower Austria, and then up and over a scenic if strenuous climb back to the city of St. Pölten.
Unfortunately, history has a way of repeating itself. And once again, just like in Linz, I somehow made a wrong turn during the early stages of the half marathon run, and ended up at the finish line after all of about a mile. Oops. I have no idea how this happened, as I followed what was very clearly a path intended for runners out of the changing tent after the bike ride. I suppose I could have retraced my steps and gone back and tried to find where I went wrong, but that probably would have thrown off the timer. In any case, I was getting hot in the sun, and had felt (after having done one of the longest swims of my life and easily the longest bike ride of my life) that I had accomplished enough for one day.
Most importantly, though, yesterday was clearly a much-needed wake up call if I have any illusions about competing at the Ironman I have signed up for in England on September 8. I can't promise anything right now- three and a half months might just be too little with everything else I have going on- but I do certainly want to up my training, especially now that I have a racing bike of my own. Also, a friend of mine here in Vienna has a cousin who is of all thing specifically a triathlon coach, so I'll be giving him a call too.
All in all, it was clearly a learning experience and despite everything, a good time. And while my first triathlon will be remembered primarily for my foibles, it certainly stoked my desire to keep at it. I'll do an ironman one day, you can mark my words. With luck and a lot of training, maybe even on September 8.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Abbreviated Balkan Trip

Well, so my original plan for a massive two week long road trip through the Balkans came to nought (discretion being clearly the better part of valor here). I've also learned that it takes a good deal of time (really at least two months, preferably longer) to set up school visits in parts of the world that aren't as readily accessible as Vienna. No worries, though. My timeline in setting up ASAP (the American Student Ambassador Program) is still fine. I did manage to do visit ten classes in Vienna this year, with one or two more still possible. Come next fall, I will continue to do more visits myself and start looking for other young Americans to also head to classrooms to talk about life in the USA and spread some much needed goodwill for our country. Then, by the fall of 2009, with a year and a half of experience under my belt, I'll be ready to start looking for donors.
But while I didn't manage to make it to Kosovo, Bosnia, or any other small countries usually followed by the word "crisis" in international news reports, I did spend three days in Romania last week, volunteering with Project Centipede. I was first motivated to go on this trip when I saw a slide show with pictures from around 1990, which showed how desperately poor many of the children there were as well as the appalling conditions in which they lived. However, having been there myself, eighteen years after, it's readily apparent that things have improved dramatically. Romania may still be the poorest country in the EU, and have plenty of people living in poverty, particularly among the Roma minority, but it's well on its way to becoming a middle-income country.
The part of the country in which we helped out (Transylvania, and yes, we saw plenty of Dracula-associated kitsch) is actually inhabited primarily by ethnic Hungarians, even though it's quite far away from the Hungarian border. Our primary task was to visit schools and orphanages and distribute care packages that Viennese volunteers had put together for the children there. Of course the best part was the chance to get to play with the kids. My friend Nick had sent over some frisbees at my request from the USA, and they were especially a big hit. The only thing I regret is not taking the time to have learned some pleasantries in Hungarian, so that I could have had a chance to talk a little bit with the kids, but I'll keep that in mind for future school visits in countries where the children speak something other than German and English.
P.S. There will be another blog entry later this week to make up for the lack of one from the week prior.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Thames Dispatch

I'm in London this weekend visiting my friend the brilliant Filip Matwin. Remember that name- like me, he'll be famous some day, although we're both not yet quite sure what for. During most of my past few trips to London, I've come with Ryanair (the cheapo bare bones airline that makes Southwest and JetBlue look like first class) and have landed at Stansted Airport. Stansted is a pain in the neck to get to and from, not to mention that the round trip train tickets from Stansted to London and back usually end up costing as much as the whole flight). But it does have one thing going for it. Since they always have about twenty times the number of EU citizens on flights going to Stansted as opposed to us luckless non-EU sorts, and since they still divide the queue (not a line, please, we're in England, my good chap) into EU and non-EU citizens, the customs line at Stansted always takes about a minute for me, as opposed to maybe close to twenty or so for everyone else. Ha ha. The other thing worth mentioning here is the heat. It's 84 degrees outside and it's early May still. In friggin London! Yeah, no global warming. Riiiiight. So that's London for you, hot and a perfect way of shifting travelers through customs. Then again, the UK could just be a normal EU country and join the Shengen agreement which permits passport free travel. But that would be too easy.
And one last juicy tidbit of news: I'll be trying out for Who Wants to be a Millionaire in New York in June! Whoopee! The Fisher House Foundation stands to make 50% of my winnings, provided I get into the hot seat.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Hostel Environment

I arrived in Vienna on March 11, and with luck, will be moving into a new apartment I am in the process of buying on June 11. But in the three months between those two momentous dates, my living situation has been chaotic to say the least. For the first two weeks I was here I stayed with my former Austrian host family, which was a terrific way to ease myself back into life in Vienna. Then, for a week I couch surfed which, as always, was a great way to meet people and make a bunch of new friends. While some (maybe most?) people might feel uncomfortable with the idea of crashing on the couch of someone you just met four hours hence, I’ve couch surfed close to twenty nights over the past year and have never had a bad experience- indeed it’s always been a lot of fun. Like ebay, couch surfing works largely on a reference basis- once you’ve stayed with someone or someone has stayed with you, you are encouraged to write a short reference that then appears on the other person’s profile. This way, future people you might meet through couch surfing can see that you’re both a fascinating and fun individual and not likely to dress up in a Mickey Mouse costume and start singing the national anthem of Botswana at 4 in the morning.
Following my week of couch surfing, I entered the apartment with the landlady from the eighth circle of hell, a story which I’ve already spilled too many pixels on. But after that amusing episode, I decamped to the Wombats Hostel where I’ve been for most of the last three weeks (with the exception of five nights last week when I stayed at a friend’s place while he was away). I’ll be here through Saturday, then to Italy for three nights, then back here for three more nights or so, then off to London, then off on my Central and Eastern European road trip for two weeks, then back here for three nights, then back to the states for two weeks, and then and only then, will I hopefully be able to start living in my new apartment (more on that next time).
So here I am, 26 with two degrees and living out of a suitcase in a youth hostel, since obviously it would be silly to rent with my wacky travel schedule. But honestly, with the exception of my own apartment, there’s no place I’d rather be. Wombats (the name has its origins in a drunken game of pool in Australia back in 1988) is clearly the coolest hostel I’ve ever stayed at, with the tempermental wireless access in the lobby where I’m sitting now the only drawback. Aside from that, though, it has a central location, a great bar in the basement, and a great atmosphere that lends itself to drunken pillow fights, marathon cookie baking sessions, and meeting cool people from all over the world. A hostel environment, no doubt, but by no means a hostile one.