In the Belly of the Habsburgs

Two years ago, I traveled to Romania with my friend and roommate from my Baltic Roadtrip, Šarūnas, where we stumbled upon a lone traveler that sparked my interests for future adventures. Deep in a frozen concrete slab alleyway, we came face to face with a lone Canadian woman, who stared right back at us and with a giggle asked, “Have we been following each other, or do we just end up in the same places? Because I’ve been seeing you two everywhere in this city.”

Šarūnas and I exchanged a smile, and I’m not sure which one of us posited this golden line (probably Šarūnas).

“Guess we should probably just hang out then…”

Together we sat, in the dusk of a cold January Bucharest day deep in the alleys of the pit of Nicolae Ceaușescu’s concrete Utopia, smoking shisha and sharing stories. Our new friend had just come from Sofia, Bulgaria, and told of a mystical pagan festival called ‘Surva’. I had first heard of Surva, a masquerade competition celebrating Balkan mysticism, in a National Geographic article. However, once our friend showed us videos of drunken vodka slinging monsters parading the streets with gigantic bells, I knew that one day I would have to visit this bizarre and ancient festival.


Two years later, I found myself about to make this expedition to Sofia to see where the drunk monsters dance. But since I like an adventure, I found a roundabout way to get to Sofia. In this case: on a flight from Billund to Vienna with Wizz Air.

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I have somehow never been to Austria, even though it seems like one of the top European destinations for many tourists. It’s one of the ‘Big European Destinations’ on every American’s bucket list (Along with Rome, Paris, London, etc.), yet it has taken me five years of European living to make it here.

Home to incredible history and architecture, Vienna seems like the kind of city I would make an effort to go to. Yet alas, flights have always been too expensive until now. As well, I never had a reason to go other than for the pure delight of being in the old Habsburg capital. But after my time in Hong Kong, I now have a close friend to go visit in the city.

I arrive late and wander around downtown until my couchsurfing host is free to introduce me to the space I will be living in.

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Vienna is a beautiful city by night, with lights illuminating the intricate beauty of the old capital.

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As I walk up to my couchsurfer’s studio, piles of bricks with the Habsburg crest imprinted deeply on them line my way up the stairway. Up above me on the next floor, my couchsurfing host greets me with a smile, shuffling through the hall and pointing out the old elements of this 19th-century building. A retired journalist, native to the Atlas mountains of Morocco and later transplanted to Paris and then Vienna, Abdallah is the kind of couchsurfing host I dream about staying with. Well read, articulate, and a wonderful storyteller, I peer at his journalistic pictures of Morocco and finger through his extensive library as he tells me of his recent trip to Iran. I feel as though I have nothing interesting to posit to this man of extensive knowledge and adventure, yet still we step out into the cold for a late night pizza and glass of wine. He has lived such an interesting life, and I wonder if I will be eating pizza with a young wanderer fifty years from now.

The next day is full of exploring the city. I have missed European cities and architecture a bit, and realize how much I had missed Gothic architecture. Vienna reminds me a bit of Paris, from the era when Oligarchs wished to show off with intricate Rococo windowsills and cute cafes. This is how most of Vienna felt to me, beautiful but with not much going on behind all of it. Of course, going in the dead of winter was perhaps the worst time to visit the city, but in a way, it is also the best. If you are able to find a city beautiful at its worst, then it will be even better at its best. But for me, Vienna felt a bit like being inside of a giant skeleton. Everything is wonderfully clean, bleached, and beautiful; but there does not appear to be much blood running through the veins. Regardless, I was in town to visit a friend.

I met with Laurenz late in the evening next to the Vienna Technical University. After a warm hug and a quick chat, we head upstairs for a yoga lesson from the mother of one of Laurenz’ friends. For the next two hours, we sweat and cringe as our muscles pull and turn to mush. When we emerge from the yoga room, we’re disgusted by our rusty limbs and out-of-shape physique, but so relaxed. I have never done yoga for that long, yet it felt so right. Laurenz and I suite up and head out for a few beers.

I did not make many friends in Hong Kong, but those that I made are definitely worth keeping. Laurenz is a lot like me: not really certain what to do with this life, yet finding joy in things that can not necessarily support a living. We both love literature and the active pursuit of writing, and we talk a lot about some of the more intangible things in life, dreaming a bit together as we sip our beers. Some of Laurenz’ friends are in a bar elsewhere in town, so we pick up and move over there so I can meet some Viennese.

Most of the Viennese I’ve met have been quite kind. They remind me of Swedish people, in the sense that they are overwhelmingly kind yet driven by more material pleasures. Berliners often look like the city they live in: a bit grungy and with unshaven armpits. But Viennese have to keep up with their cities atmosphere, and most I have seen stay well dressed and mannered throughout the day, even after a few beers. Laurenz’ friends are in the business world, so of course, they find themselves living in this lifestyle. They are wonderful to talk to, especially since I do not find myself with people of this profession often.

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The next day is spent very much in the same way, the way I wander any cold city. I walk until I get cold, stop in to read and warm up with a coffee, and reenter the city walking until it’s socially acceptable to find a bar for a more lively company. As it was Friday, I went to the Belvedere Palace late at night to enjoy free Friday nights at the museum. To be able to see The Kiss and other works of artistic antiquity for free was an amazing opportunity.

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As I exit the museum, Abdallah texted me to see if I would like to join him and a friend for some wine. I hopped on the trolly and went straight for the bar, where I was greeted by Abdallah and his wonderfully animated friend, Mo, a Moroccan sociologist. They poured me a glass of wine and instantly began prodding me on matters from American politics to life in Europe. They seem genuinely curious, and often get into long debates with each other over little things the way old educated men do everywhere in the world. The prodding continued blissfully for the whole evening.

“What I am asking you, young man,” Mo’s body, leaning far over the table, straining his neck and large glasses to meet my gaze, “is simply, whether or not you have government supported healthcare in the United States.”

I would try my best to answer such heavy questions while Abdallah would stare out into the distance listening until he felt the need to chime in. They told me of Morocco during French colonialism, of life in current-day Morocco, and why they will probably never move back. The night continued in such a manner until Mo remembered he had to walk his dog and Abdallah had to run back to the studio to pick up a charger. At this moment, Laurenz pulled up to the bar and took me away for some traditional Austrian dinner.

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Wiener Schnitzel, Dumplings with roasted meat, and local beer. Simple, hearty, and perfect for a cold Austrian evening. I only wish that I were on a mountaintop returning from a day on the slopes, to make these calories feel worth it.

I gorge myself regardless.


The next morning, Laurenz and I meet up near central Vienna for a nice brunch. Brunch is not a common treat in Hong Kong, and if it is, it is absurdly expensive and driven towards tourists. This, however, was a legitimate brunch for the hip Viennese masses. The restaurant is packed with Viennese families, couples, and friends, enjoying late brunch of omelets and French Toast. They are all wonderfully dressed and put-together, and I feel as though I am dining with beautiful otherworldly humans, ones with nice jobs and flats that can afford delicious brunches every weekend. This kind of bourgeois lifestyle could get addictive.

After breakfast, Laurenz and I walk around the flea market near the famous food market, Naschmarkt. It feels like a market that could have existed several centuries ago, with all of the sellers coming from far out destinations in the hinterlands of the great empire. Tan Albanians sell rugs, mustachioed Turks sell spices, Slovaks sell old Soviet paraphernalia, and I feel as though I am truly on the borderlands between Europe and the East. In a way, I am. Vienna served as the border between Europe and the Ottomans for quite a while, so it feels only natural that it still serves this same purpose. After perusing the market, Laurenz drives me to the airport for my flight East, deep into the old Empire.

Now, I find myself boarding a plane with cold looking Serbs, towards the South Serbian city of Niš. I have no expectations, no plans, only that I am going to a land that has been ruled by everybody at some point; one still repairing from centuries of conflict. But I truly will not know what I am getting into until I am there.

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Thank you for reading! I hope you have been enjoying, and if there is anything you would like to change feel free to comment or send me a message. See you soon!

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