Crossing the border into Austria I might be forgiven for thinking everything was going to be fine. Austria has a reputation as a sort of heaven on earth, filled with picture perfect villages, a glittering capital city and mountains that could make the most curmudgeonly begin yodeling. This was not the Austria we entered. The landscape was dead from winter. The slushy snow that had covered the roads in Moravia was melting away, leaving intermittent patches of barren ground. Besides a few flurries and the constant roar of an icy wind, it was grey sky and open roads. The way around Vienna looked to be clear. Of course, we were trying to make Debrecen before midnight, but that did not stop us from detouring to Rosenberger’s for one last roadside meal.
It was Rosenberger which spawned the beloved Landzeit that we ate at earlier in our trip. The Rosenberger we stopped at seemed to be living off its exalted reputation. The food was nothing memorable on this day. The restaurant had the air of an abandoned airport. Rosenberger was the forerunner of all the sumptuous roadside restaurants in Austria. It was started in 1972 and grew into a powerhouse based on delicious food and legendary service. Unfortunately, this one lacked that special magic of Landzeit. My expectations for it were too high. For that matter, it suffered the same unrealistic levels of expectations that I have for Austria in general. The soaring mountains, glittering capital and clean swept towns were nowhere to be found on this day.
Giving Notice – The Return of History
Skirting the suburbs of Vienna, my wife and I stared at the backside of lorries for kilometers on end while driving past industrialized landscapes. It was hard to believe the Ringstrasse was less than half an hour away. We were experiencing the Austria never shown on tourist brochures. Perhaps it was the blustery weather, the now traffic packed motorway or the general malaise that accords a trip’s final moments that made Austria seem much less impressive than usual. This was probably to be expected. Let’s face it, dealing with road construction could defeat Disney. This was the first time I felt like Austria was like everywhere else. The one saving grace on this day was that the Austrian motorways were clear of snow. Crossing Lower Austria and the Burgenland in the far eastern portion of the country was like navigating a wind tunnel at 130 kilometers per hour. Wind turbines that loomed just off the highway were spinning with a sense of abandonment.
This day was about endurance. The idea of enjoyment had escaped me after leaving the Czech Republic. I was relieved when we neared the Austria-Hungary border crossing. There was no passport control, but border officials were slowing traffic down and taking a quick peek inside at each car’s inhabitants. This was the product of tightened border restrictions due to the refugee crisis a couple of years before. This slowdown was irritating since the Schengen Zone had spoiled me with open borders and full throttle entry into EU countries. This was the first sign I had seen of Europe closing in on itself. It was famously said that 1989 was the end of history. Communism and the Iron Curtain had collapsed, democratic capitalist societies reigned supreme. Nationalism, totalitarianism and a range of other insidious -isms had been exhausted by war, economic failure and intellectual irrelevancy. Well now we know that history never went away, it was always there. If only we had taken the time to look past our own triumphalism and notice.
Self-Induced Amnesia – A Borderless Existence
One of the more bizarre things about internal borders in the EU, is how they seem to hardly exist. If there had been no border personnel to remind us, the dividing line between eastern Austria and western Hungary would be imperceptible. Border guards in this area have become a novelty. Oddly, for two nations that had a historically fractious relationship, there is now nothing but an invisible line between them. In an irony so bizarre that it goes largely unnoticed, traveling from Austria into Hungary on the motorway is not even noticeable except for the large signs that welcome travelers. The border felt about the same to me as it does in the United States when crossing from Indiana to Ohio. If a sign did not say this is Austria or this is Hungary, who would know the difference. No one would have believed such a thing was possible 40 years ago. And now no one believes that anything other than the status quo is possible. The ability to suffer self-induced amnesia regarding recent history is in one sense admirable and in another, deeply disturbing.
Crossing the Austria-Hungary border could have been much worse. Waiting in a car to be waved through by windblown, listless representatives of Austrian officialdom is much better than languishing at ominous border controls that existed during the Cold War. Meanwhile, there was another Cold War brewing outside, but this one was natural rather than manmade. There was a wild wind swirling from seemingly every direction. The weather could not make up its mind what it wanted to do. This sent my emotions into schizophrenic spasms, segueing between moments of buoyant optimism followed by bouts of futile cynicism. Before long, I got the distinct feeling that we were headed into a storm, but since we had been driving in and out of them during our entire trip, this was not as frightening a prospect as it should have been.
Stopping Point – Frozen In Place
It was not long before the sky grew darker and the road along with it. This was the product of freezing precipitation that threatened to bring traffic to a halt. I suddenly realized that the terrain of western Hungary was not helping matters. Transdanubia as it is known, consists of rolling topography. I dreaded going downhill more than up. The roadway was a glistening sheen that was becoming slicker by the minute. It was not long before we gave up on the idea of Debrecen. The conditions became treacherous, with cars and trucks inching along. No one knew if they were on a sheet of ice or a rain slicked road. Soon, a line of cars stretched over several kilometers. No one wanted to chance more than 40 kilometers per hour. Every time I set foot on the brakes a nervous tension consumed me. An hour earlier I had been dreaming of getting back to Debrecen, now I was wondering weather we would make it to the nearest exit. Our journey had come to a halt, but it was nowhere near over. The search for a safe place to stay the night was just beginning.