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Using public transportation in Central Europe

While my trip is fresh in memory and even though it’s off-topic for this blog, I thought I’d share some public transportation tips for future travelers. Keep in mind that my husband and I live in an area with limited options (the Detroit People Mover doesn’t really count), so public transportation isn’t part of our everyday lives. My tips will no doubt elicit a big “duh!” from some of you. We relied on trains and local systems in Germany, Austria, the Czech Republic, and an overnight stay in Slovakia. By the end of the trip I was stressed about planning routes, but really, everything was easy to navigate, convenient, and not very expensive.

Interior wall of Malostranská metro station in Prague

Prague metro stations look like they’re upholstered in Dalek skin

 

Local Transportation

If the local transport system has an app, use it. It’s much easier than trying to correlate paper maps and timetables, and while it’s possible to use Google Maps for route planning (set up the start and end point for directions, then choose the train icon for public transport options), it doesn’t include all systems or have up-to-date information. The local apps in Berlin and Munich were much more useful.

One place where Google Maps excels is that it will tell you the walking time required for each route. For example, it might say that you need to take the S2 S-bahn and Bus 152, and there will be 12 minutes of walking. For someone with mobility issues, traveling with children, or dragging luggage, walking time can be a deciding factor.

Speaking of mobility issues, our experience overall was that Central Europe would be happy if disabled folks would go somewhere else, thankyouverymuch. There was not always an audible announcement of stops or arriving trains for the visually impaired. Many stations had stairs and no elevators. Escalators in stations were often broken — I think every escalator in the Munich Hauptbahnhof was simultaneously out of service. Austria was better than the other countries we visited, but it was still touch and go.

When buying local transportation tickets at a machine in a combined train station, you might need to go to the very top menu and then choose the local system. I made this mistake the first time I tried to navigate the machines at the Munich main train station; I had to go up a menu to find the options for the MVV instead of those that also included DB.

Waiting for the U-Bahn in Berlin, I tentatively translated a notice that the upcoming train would be short. Unfortunately, I had no idea what that meant. We soon found out as we jogged down the platform after the receding end of the tiny train. I later noticed a mark on the wall next to the track that clearly indicated where a short train would end. Ohhhhh. It’s hard to notice all the little details when you’re overwhelmed with a different culture and language.

We found it useful to buy tickets that allowed the use of any public transportation — bus, tram, S-bahn, U-bahn/metro — for a specified amount of time rather than individual tickets. We bought tourist cards (which include all public transport and some discounts/free admissions to local attractions) in Berlin and Prague, where we spent enough time to make the price worthwhile. In Vienna we bought 48 hour passes. Munich was the worst: the day tickets expire around 6:00 am the following morning, no matter when you buy them, but can still be cost effective.

Validate your ticket if necessary. This isn’t true for every system, so it’s important to do a little research ahead of time, but in many places, buying your ticket isn’t enough. You also need to have it date stamped by a machine you can find in the station (or on the bus/tram). In the Czech Republic, you must do this before you go down to the metro platform or you can be hit with a significant fine. To make things even more fun, in areas where validation is mandatory, some tickets don’t require it. Hahaha! In all of our rides, we only encountered a ticket inspector on a bus in Salzburg, but he checked each ticket to be sure it was stamped. Side note: you don’t need to show your ticket every time you get on. Keep it tucked away somewhere convenient.

Buses may or may not pause at every stop. In Berlin, if nobody was waiting and nobody had pressed the Stop button, the driver just kept going. Efficient perhaps, but not user friendly if you can’t hear the announcement of the next possible stop (don’t count on it, and sometimes the interior signs don’t work). In Vienna, vehicles paused at every stop. I suppose the advice is to pay attention and if there is a stop button, push it before your stop even if it might not be necessary. Also, sometimes you will have to push a button to open the door; they don’t all open automatically.

Watch the locals. In Germany, people get up before their stop and stand near the doors, ready to impatiently push the button and burst out. If you don’t stand until after the bus has stopped, you might find the door closed in your face and the bus underway again before you can exit. The Czech were much more relaxed and Austria was a mix. Once you get used to the local rhythms and customs, it’s easy.

Long Distance Transportation

Buying tickets ahead of time is easy and often cheaper. The Deutsche Bahn website is good and their app is excellent for booking long distance trains; you can even buy “Handy” (mobile phone) tickets that have a QR code to show to the inspector, eliminating the need for a printer or stop at the ticket office/machine. Before the  trip, I wasn’t able to get the ÖBB (Austrian railway) website to accept my credit card, so I bought some tickets at the train station in Dresden. It was a lot like the DMV (motor vehicle department), with a long line and employees who reeked of exasperation and annoyance.

Second class on long distance trains is just fine. It’s a hell of a lot nicer than Amtrak, but I’d recommend paying to reserve your seat, especially if hauling luggage or traveling with others. Social and backpacking? Then go ahead and save some Euros; you’ll just have to look around to find an available unreserved seat. I liked first class and it was still less expensive than US train travel, but the advantages varied by route and type of train. Sometimes there was free WiFi. Once we were given bottles of water. Other times, first class simply offered a more comfortable seat with a power outlet and a reserved place included in the price. Some trains also offer a quiet car if you want to avoid people having loud mobile phone conversations in nearby seats.

There is a lot of information on the platforms, but much of it gets lost in visual overload. On long distance trains, you might have a reserved ticket that says you’re in Wagon 273, Seat 32. Fantastic… but then this long train pulls into the station and you only have a couple minutes to find the right car, and you feel like an idiot running down the platform with your suitcase bumping behind you. Maybe that’s just me. The screens above the platform that announce the trains will often say “ABC” or “ABCD”, etc. Those correlate to signs above the platform and give you an idea where the train will be positioned. Sometimes, a sign will tell you which order the cars will be in, such as 1st, 1st, Dining, 2nd, 2nd 2nd. Even better, sometimes you can find a sign like the one below from Mannheim. This is such great UI that I’m embarrassed to say I never noticed something like it until the end of my trip; maybe they are standard. Not only does it list the trains by departure time, number, and major stops, it shows you which direction they will go, the car schema, and the vertical red yarn marker shows the location of that sign compared to where the train will stop. This was invaluable for making sure I was standing near the right car and didn’t have to haul my bag down the length of the train after it was underway.

german_trains

Seriously, watch your bags in the train station. While waiting in the station at Bratislava, my husband and I watched the pickpockets and scammers work the crowd. There was an elderly beggar who seemed innocuous until we noticed his partner exchanging signals with him across the room. A woman sitting and chatting on a side wall was silently communicating with someone else. We couldn’t find the partner of the girl selling magazines, but since she vanished — along with the rest — just before the police walked through, we’re sure she was part of a crew. Their eyes slid over our luggage locks and Pacsafe bags (love them) and they ignored us. Most places outside of the former Czechoslovakia felt safer and there’s no need to be paranoid, but be alert.

Main train stations in some cities are essentially malls with trains that run through them. Berlin’s Hbf is incredible and the new Vienna Hbf is great too. I already miss the train station bakery and sandwich shops. One of my summer projects is to try to duplicate the mango curry sauce that Le Crobag uses on their chicken baguettes; my heavens, it’s good!

All in all, taking public transportation during our trip was fantastic. I wish that it were possible to have a useful train system in the US, and local transit planners should have to spend a couple weeks navigating systems in Europe to help them avoid harebrained plans like monorails to nowhere and dead end light rail lines. I spent the last two weeks of my trip driving everywhere, which was also nice (the best roads in Michigan are infinitely crappier than the worst roads in Bavaria, where even winding mountain trails were as smooth as a freshly paved NASCAR track), but sometimes I missed just hopping on a tram.

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Posted by on June 5, 2015 in Culture, Side Topics

 

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Away for a few weeks

Kay avatar standing in a virtual airport, holding a suitcase and wearing sunglasses

This will probably be my last post until June. I’ve been planning one more big meaty post, but the pieces aren’t coming together. It’ll give me something to think about on planes, trains, and occasionally in automobiles.

Jakob continues to drift from ok to very bad and back again. We had a good conversation on Thursday, a lighter version of the intense talks we used to have, covering topics from immigration and refugees to train engineer strikes and the labor movement in 20th century America. But it was just an hour of having him back: he had trouble forming sentences yesterday morning and has missed two scheduled chats with me since. His phone is still home but he could be in the hospital again.  All I can do is wait for news. (Update: as of Saturday afternoon, he is definitely in the hospital.)

In his case, language ability is the canary in the coal mine: when something is out of balance, he loses vocabulary and responds to everything with only a few words and phrases, like a poorly programmed bot. I’m guessing this is because of the tumor he had removed from the language area of his brain. It’s hard to gauge how impaired his comprehension is at those times.Trying to coax some thought and words out of him yesterday, I asked about the weather. “It is nice,” he responded, but then he followed that with, “fire is grey.”  “Fire?” (no coherent response)  “Auf Deutsch is ok, dear.  ‘Fire is grey’ macht kein Sinn.”  “:))))”  … sigh….

After an argument earlier in the week, he sent me links to a doctor in the town where we’ll be staying and the closest hospital. He’ll be able to have chemo there instead of making the long trip back home. He also assured me that his sister knows about the trip. I don’t know her well, but if she felt strongly that he shouldn’t go, I think she’d tell me. I’m stressed with a lot of what-ifs, especially since I’ll have less contact with Jakob during the first half of my trip. I’ll be thousands of miles closer, but since he doesn’t like to use email or other chat programs and I won’t have a device for running SL, we won’t communicate much and I won’t have any sense of how he’s doing.

My husband says that our pit bull and I share a tendency toward obsession and I’ll concur. Neither of us is the most committed of obsessives — we’re both too lazy for that — but “Let It Go” is not our theme song. In this time of stress, I’ll try to take comfort from another group of philosophers:

 
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Posted by on April 25, 2015 in Side Topics

 

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A personal aside

I’m working on a more topical post about exposing things online, from whistleblowing to shaming to filming excessive force. That’s going to take a while, partially because I’m a bit overwhelmed by RL things. If you care to read some personal rambling, I’ll continue below the image. Otherwise, see you soon.

Second Life Kay avatar watching her AI pet wolf howl on a grassy hill

[Quick background for anyone new: My Second Life partner Jakob, who has been my closest companion other than my husband for the past two and a half years, has stage IV stomach cancer. His symptoms developed suddenly in November; he had surgery in December to remove a tumor that had metastasized to his brain, had whole brain radiation in January, and began palliative chemotherapy in February. Next month is a vacation that we began planning almost a year before he became sick: I’ll be traveling in Europe with my husband for 18 days and after that Jakob and I planned to rent a place in the Alps — a few hours away from his home — and explore from that base for two more weeks.]

Jakob was just in the hospital for a week because of his blood sugar scare (he seems to have developed treatment-induced diabetes from the chemo, along with anemia, hypercalcemia, and pneumonia). He has been rocketing from hypoglycemia up to critically high blood sugar levels. He returned home Friday morning, but I’ve received no messages since then and he hasn’t been online. I contacted his sister, who told me that he isn’t well. He continues to have problems and he fell this morning. He didn’t hurt himself, but he needs and will soon have daily in-home help. Update: I got a short email from him after I had written this but before publishing it, saying that he’ll be online tomorrow to watch the Bahrain Grand Prix with me. Fingers crossed.

I feel so bad for him. He had very little experience with illness and then his life changed suddenly and horribly. Once we saw how sick chemo was making him, I wanted to be more realistic and stay closer to his home for our vacation, but he refused to alter the plans. He told me he was looking forward to the trip and I know it was motivation for him to keep going. He was deeply in denial, too.

Here we are. I leave for Europe in nine days and am scheduled to pick him up in under a month. In his current state (his sister describes him as “listless and unmotivated”, almost unrecognizable to her), I wonder if he has reached the realization that the trip, as planned, is no longer possible. He needs daily help for everything from changing his IV to basic hygiene. I can’t do those things, especially not in a rental apartment in a small village, a four hour drive from his doctors. What a tragedy.

On a selfish note, I’m devastated. I’m losing my dear friend in bits and pieces. Some days he’s chatty and sweet, though he doesn’t have energy for long talks anymore. Some days he’s confused or just missing. I’m frustrated that on the trip with my husband, his first time in Europe, I’ll be fighting to stay present and not worried about Jakob or what comes next. I’m angry that Jakob has refused to make new plans (though I understand and empathize). Regardless of how I feel about it, I’ll make the best I can of the entire trip. I expect that my time with Jakob will be spent at his home. Maybe he will be well enough for short day trips. I meet him fewer than four weeks from now and I feel like I’m racing the clock.

Thanks for letting me vent.

 
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Posted by on April 18, 2015 in Health - Mental & Physical, Relationships

 

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Roundup: Relay for Life, anthro of hacking, marketing SL, and travel questions

I’ve got some little things today, while I’m working on my other writing and a bigger post for next week:

Relay for Life

Did you know that more than $2 million has been donated to the American Cancer Society over the past decade through its presence in Second Life? Or that as of last summer, the SL Relay for Life team ranked 17th on a list of donation amounts from 5000 RFL teams? The run up to the fundraising season kicks off this weekend, leading up to Relay Weekend on July 18-19th. I’ve never participated in RFL, but this year… well, with Jakob going through intensive cancer treatment and being a “survivor” myself (I hate that term with a passion), I think it’s time. Anyone need another team member?  One thing that the Relay for Life of Second Life site really lacks is a “How can I help?” page: it’s not easy for an individual to understand how to jump in if they’d like to do more than attend an event or make a donation.

2015-rfl-of-sl-logo-v7

Anthropology of Hacking

Earlier this year I reviewed the latest book from Gabriella Coleman, We Are Anonymous: Inside the Hacker World of LulzSec, Anonymous, and the Global Cyber Insurgency. There’s a little treasure trove of her other writing available here on her website, including links to sites where you can read several of her papers/articles. The link to the CC PDF version of her book “Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking” is unfortunately broken, but perhaps that will be repaired. I’ve got a copy and it’s on my current reading list.

Drax and Becky on Marketing Second Life

This week’s Drax Radio Hour [with Jo Yardley] discusses the topic of how to market Second Life, with special guest Canary Beck. That’s something that many of us debate at length, since SL is what we make of it, and therefore many different things to different people. The show runs more than an hour; check it out.  Also, happy rez day, Drax!

Travel Advice? Berlin, Dresden, Prague, Vienna, Bratislava, Salzburg, Munich?

I’m in the final stretch of planning a trip for this Spring and our transportation and places to stay are booked. I’ve been to some of these cities before and I’ve read websites and guidebooks, but the best tips I’ve ever gotten have been from locals or travelers who stumbled across something incredible. Anyone have recommendations for things to see or places to eat that aren’t the basic tourist spots?  We’re traveling by train and most of our accommodations come via airbnb, so we’re restricted to places we can reach with public transportation in the cities (except for a day when I plan to rent a car so we can go to Český Krumlov). Thanks for any ideas!

 
 

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The black hole of online travel planning

Over 20 years ago, I went on a crazy road trip through southern Europe with a friend.  We drove my beat-up hatchback stuffed with clothes, blankets, snacks, and jugs of water.  Between us, we had a couple of guidebooks, some bad maps, and a smattering of Italian, German, and Spanish. Our most useful tools were fantastic ignorance and big smiles. It was an adventure.

I contrast that with now, as I’ve just finished the primary planning for a month-long trip that will go through Germany, the Czech Republic, Austria, and a quick side trip to Slovakia. Some of the destinations for that trip were also visited on my manic road trip, but the planning now is so different. Part of that is due to technology that will go along with us — my smartphone will replace those guidebooks, maps, and even phrasebooks — but the Internet also provides such a wealth of information and options that it’s possible to plan every microscopic detail.

Before, to have a good trip I had to grab every bit of information I could find ahead of time.  Now, to avoid insanity, I had to stop myself from going down a never-ending spiral of detail.

kay_at_airport

Airports in SL: much easier than the physical world

What am I talking about? Well, consider booking a flight. This is my husband’s first trip to Europe and I’ve been hoarding airline frequent flier miles so he wouldn’t be squashed in Economy, the steerage level of modern travel. To reach the quantity that we needed, I started reading forums and blogs for the mileage obsessed, learning tips and tricks — swapping our main credit card for another one with a great mileage offer, maximizing our spending on it to get bonuses, looking for other earning opportunities. I reached the goal and then American Airlines discontinued a program that I needed. Argh! Back to the forums, another credit card change, some miles purchased. Many more hours spent planning dates and routes, then hours on the phone actually booking the tickets. Yes, we have fantastic seats for a low price in dollars, but an enormous cost in hours. I could have spent many more trying to work the mileage game to my advantage.

How about booking places to stay? Hotels are great, but we’re staying longer in a couple of cities, so off to airbnb and VRBO! But cities are large and I can’t walk far, so I’d better go over to Google Maps. Then to TripAdvisor to check tips from locals and previous visitors. Off to check nearby attractions and restaurants and public transportation. Which train station will we need to leave from? Over I go to the Deutsche Bahn site. What is that Prague price in dollars? I ask Google Now on my phone. Have I checked Fodor’s and Lonely Planet? What does Rick Steves say? Oh look, I found twenty travel blogs from people who were there just last year, I should read them all.

And on, and on, and on. I feel the compulsion not to just plan a trip, but to plan The Best Trip, and to leave no digital stone unturned in that quest. Once I had flights and accommodations booked, and I had a general idea of things to see and which train tickets to buy next year, I had to force myself to step away. I’ll let myself read some history and fiction related to the places we’re going, but no more planning.

I’ve seen others spin themselves into a lather trying to plan in this era of digital abundance.  You’ve probably seen them, too.  The Pinterest boards of wedding ideas that scroll on and on. The folder full of reviews and stats on every car remotely within budget.  The huge list of links to college programs.  We don’t have to settle or jump blindly anymore, but analysis paralysis is not just an annoying catch phrase from an efficient management seminar. With so many options, we have to teach ourselves when to walk away.  When to accept and embrace some uncertainty. When to say, “This is fantastic enough.” I’m not very good at that, but I’m working on it.

 
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Posted by on September 30, 2014 in Side Topics

 

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