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July 4, 2006

signs, and
borders are all
pretty funny &
mysterious. It's
strange to travel
through a country
observing the subtle
shifts in architecture,
agriculture, & culture,
all of which are influ-
enced by the (usually)
gradually changing land-
scape and traditionally slow
drift of ideas. The last place
looks pretty much like the next,
with more in common than different.
But then you cross an imaginary line
into an entirely new language, an abrupt
and arbitrary transition which is especially
pronounced when going from Austria to
Hungary, where the origins of the language
remain a source of mystery and beguilement
to linguists. I had ignorantly assumed Hungarian
to be a Slavic language, and so thought I could get
by, but it's more like Finnish (and no one knows why).
I was helpless and kept wanting to respond, "I'm sorry,
I don't speak Gibberish." (This isn't meant as an insult to
Hungarians but more as a joke on my own cluelessness.)
To make things more fun, street signs seem to be regarded
as optional here. In Sopron, we went by blocks and blocks
of cross streets without seeing a single name. Elsewhere,
redundancy ruled, with several signs within sight of each
other marking a short stretch of bike path. Then nothing more
for great distances. Not a problem once you're on the trail, but
very confusing when you get to a fork in the road too small to be
seen on a map. So we took a wrong turn, rode haphazardly through
swarming horseflies along an almost impassable muddy dirt road
until by luck we found pavement again and followed it to a dead end
at the "open" border between Hungary and Austria. We chanced upon
a historic spot--the place where the border was first opened in June 1989 after
liberation from the Soviet Union. A larger-than-life marble sculpture of open
doors was contradicted by the presence just beyond it of a group of 4 machine gun
wielding Austrian soldiers
who were shocked that our travel companion Momo had
the nerve to go around a barrier and approach them. They were friendly but told us
no way could we cross there, or even use the clearly marked bike trail running parallel
to the border to our destination, the Neusiedler See. Maybe someday they'll really do away
with borders between EU member nations, but for now the souvenir barbed wire remnant
and watchtower aren't quite yet the memorials to a bygone age that they pretend to be.