Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Fun on trains

One of the few redeeming aspects of the recent spike in oil prices is that it might finally force a critical mass of Americans off of the road and onto the rails. I have been an avid train fan since I was 5 years old, and I still get a huge kick out of traveling by train. Currently I am in a brand new, state of the art sleeping compartment that I have all to myself on an overnight train trip from Vienna to Rijeka, a city in northern Croatia. Even though Croatia isn’t even in the European Union and was engaged in a horrible war until about 1995, this is a nicer sleeper car than you would find anywhere in the USA.
Another thing I have often enjoyed about train travel in Europe is that on some trains, you can pull the window down and stick your head out, like a golden retriever in a car. Now of course there are signs on the window saying you shouldn’t do this, and I’ve heard of at least one person being killed this way, but who cares- it’s one of the greatest feelings of freedom in the world to do this. Generally speaking, if you want to lean out a window on the right side of the train, you should wait until the track curves to the right somewhat (and the reverse is true for the left side). This way you can see what obstacles could be in your way (e.g. trains in the other direction, trees, poles, etc.). Then, once your head is out the window, you can typically see obstacles in advance even when the train is going straight ahead or curving to the left a little bit.
Americans might find it odd that this is still possible in 21st century Europe, since the legal risks this pasttime presents meant that it would be impossible to even contemplate being able to do this in the USA. But while Europe (and especially Austria) can be overly bureaucratic, it tends not to be overly legalistic, like the USA. So you can still get away with sticking your head out the window and letting your cares fly by.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

I'm such a rebel

Another small difference between Austria (and Germany, and most of Northern Europe aside from Britain and Russia) and the USA: jaywalking. Hailing from the New York metro area, I take it as my inalienable right to cross a street on my own terms, and not when some red light or flashing orange hand says so. Obviously, I don't walk out into oncoming traffic, and indeed, I make certain to look both ways. But then, if the coast is clear, I saunter off across the street, leaving a host of bewildered onlookers behind me.
Then (and this is the hilarious part) almost every time that I cross a street when the light is red, somebody who had been waiting patiently suddenly gets up enough nerve to cross the street a second or two after me. Certainly I have thus incurred the wrath of scores of parents of 3-6 year old children who tell their children that what I am doing is on a par with armed robbery. But I prefer to think that by jaywalking, I've helped introduce a little bit more freedom into a society that could use a little less classical music and philosophy and a little bit more cheekiness, every now and then.
Also, I had mentioned last time that I would write a little bit about my birding trip to Hungary from last week with my friend Jeff. We had great looks at Great Bustard (the world's heaviest flying bird) Red-Footed Falcon (with young!), Hoopoe, and Grey Partridge. That's probably all the birding for this summer, but lots of family tree research and an AFS conference in France are on the table for the upcoming weeks.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Something You Don't See Everyday

Is an SL Mercedes AMG series (in other words, one damn fine automobile) being lifted into the air by towing cables. Even weirder, here in Vienna, this car had California plates on it, and was illegally parked outside the Iraqi Embassy of all places. Go figure that one out.
Which brings me back to more funny German words and phrases. One sign (that a certain driver failed to heed) that is found often in German speaking countries contains the phrase "widerrechtlich abgestellte Fahrzeuge werden kostenpflichtig abgeschleppt!" which translates into the rather more humdrum "illegally parked cars will be towed" Somehow I'm more afraid of the German phrase. Indeed, I had my first crack at driving in Vienna over the past few days while picking up and dropping off a rental car that I put over 700 miles on in three days while birding with my friend Jeff in Austria, Hungary, and Slovakia. More on that trip in a post this upcoming weekend (I missed last week, so there are two dispatches this week).
Anyway, driving in Vienna is a nightmare. There's a red light every hundred yards, lots of small, narrow, one way streets that were decidedly never meant to be used by cars, heavy traffic, and gas prices of $8 a gallon or more. In other words, take the train. That having been said, though, most Europeans are very good drivers. Highway death rates are considerably lower in most of Western Europe than in the USA, and yet people drive much faster (in Germany of course there's often no speed limit on highways and in most other countries its 130km or 80mph.)
Part of this has to do with the fact that getting a license requires more training, part of this is due to most people driving stick since driving automatic requires less attention, and part is due to stricter drunk driving laws. In any event, it proves my argument (which strangely has never been a hit with the cops in the US) that speed and safety on highways are poorly correlated. Let people drive 80 miles an hour in the USA. Or try it yourself. You will quickly realize that you are forced to pay more attention than at 65. Anyways, I'm glad to be back to taking the subway most everywhere I need, so enough on driving for now.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Live and Learn

Today I was back out on my racing bike going for a nice evening training ride in the scenic wine country south of Vienna. So far, so idyllic. When suddenly my ride seemed a little bumpy, and much to my chagrin, I had a flat tire. And no repair tools. And no cell phone. And no money. Oops.
Fortunately, I was only about a mile away from a nearby train station, so I was able to walk the bike there. And even more fortunately, I was able to catch a train back to the district of Vienna in which I am living within about twenty minutes. And best of all, there was no conductor on board, thus I managed yet another one of my patented close escapes.
Tomorrow, however, I will go to the repair shop and learn how to fix a flat and figure out a way to attach the necessary tools to my bike. It's not quite the same as the rest of the grueling training that I'm putting myself through in a frantic effort to get to the point where I can finish an Ironman Triathlon within the allotted time. But it very well may be the most important thing I can do in order to assure that I finish.
In a related story, a couple of my muscles that I use in running have been giving me a hard time lately, so I've decided to hold off on any more run training until the end of July. But having done a few marathons, and knowing that if it comes to it I can walk a bit during the last leg of the Ironman, the run is the least of my concerns. Swimming is a bit more of a concern, but I'll take a few lessons within the month, and the weather here (not to mention the numerous topless sunbathing Fräuleins) is incentive enough to get to the pool on a regular basis.
Which leaves the bike. Hours and hours and hours on the bike between now and early September. But once I move into my new apartment within a week or two, I'll get a TV and an exercise bike, and training will become much more user friendly.
And in the meantime, I keep on doing my upper body training at the gym on a regular basis. All in all, I'm in the best physical shape of my life and it promises only to get better. Which is always nice to be able to say.