Every time I start to feel like I’m getting good at this whole “living in Vienna” thing, I get a reminder at how out of my element I really am.
I had an appointment this morning to meet with Benjamin’s teachers at school, and we were running late. I’ve been wanting to sit down and talk to them about how he’s doing — some days he seems to really enjoy school, some days not so much, and since I’m not there when he’s there, I have no idea how well or poorly his days actually go. I started asking them to set up this appointment back in January, but since we were collectively sick most of February, it kept getting put off. One of B’s main teachers goes on maternity leave at the end of the month, though, so I’ve been anxious to get the chance to sit down and talk to them soon.
We were running late. We had to be there half an hour earlier than we usually even try to arrive — and we don’t usually make that. When we changed trains, halfway there, I checked my phone and saw that we might *just barely* make a bus, after our second train, that would get us to the school just in time. Sometimes we walk, sometimes we take the train, but I knew if we walked, we’d be late. It was going to be close, but I thought we’d try our best.
Success! We popped out of the station and saw the bus just pulling up to the stop. We jogged across the crosswalk as it was loading passengers, hopped in, and found seats. Whew! We were going to be on time, after all! I got Benjamin set up with Angry Birds on my phone (which he likes to play on the trains and the bus on the way to school) and looked up just in time to realize we had turned the wrong way off of the traffic circle in front of the train station. We were on the wrong bus.
Well, we were definitely going to be late now. But, it wasn’t a big deal. The public transportation system in Vienna is fantastic. I figured we’d just hop off at the first stop, jump on the next bus going the other direction and only be a few minutes late . . . or maybe we’d even be lucky and there’d be a bus that would take us directly to the stop by the school. We rode through a bit of a tunnel before coming back out to daylight, so I’d kind of lost my bearings, but really, how far could we have gone? So, at the first stop, we climbed out . . . and somehow, in the 3 minutes since we climbed on the bus, we had ended up in the middle of nowhere.
Our stop was literally just a gravelly patch on the side of a highway — not the city streets and thoroughfares I’m used to seeing in Vienna, but a proper highway, without sidewalks, crosswalks, shops or any people — the kind of highway I’ve never seen because I don’t have a car. There wasn’t a bench, a street sign or even any buildings. There weren’t any people, either — except for those in their cars, going at a fair rate of speed. I looked around and could not get my bearings. Right next to the bus stop where we got on, they’re in the process of constructing the highest skyscraper in Vienna . . . but I couldn’t see it. I couldn’t see anything I recognized. There was a lot of dry, brown grass, some big roads and a little bit of river visible on the other side of the road. I had no idea where I was. It was like the Twilight Zone.
Of course, I couldn’t let on to Benjamin that we were completely lost. So, I told him it was a bummer that we were going to be late, but that I was going to get us right on the bus going in the opposite direction. I borrowed my phone back from him and looked up where we were on Google Maps — or, I tried to, because there was some kind of compass interference and it could’nt get my location. Ok . . . now this felt a little like having found our way, in 3 minutes, from the center of Vienna to the Bermuda Triangle. Undaunted, I looked up the nearby bus stops and times. Excellent. However, the stop where we had disembarked was one that only served outbound buses . . . and the next one wasn’t for half an hour. There was one, for inbound buses, on the other side of the highway, but it didn’t have the first bus of the day coming for an hour and fifteen minutes. I was *not* going to stand on the side of the road for half an hour, or for an hour and fifteen minutes. I mean, seriously, we were on the bus for all of 3 minutes. Certainly we could walk back.
So, we set off. We crossed to an island/traffic circle kind of thing and I tried to get my bearings. According to Google Maps (which had started working) we were on the Donauinsel — an island in the middle of the Donau River. Really? Could we have gone that far? Wasn’t there an U-Bahn station around here somewhere? But, I looked around and still could’nt get my bearings. (This was particularly disconcerting for me. I have a sense of direction like a homing pigeon. I *always* know where I am.) But I couldn’t reconcile anything on the map with anything I was seeing. Things were getting weirder and weirder and we were getting later and later. And here I am, standing on a traffic island in the middle of a highway with my three year old. Not cool.
I knew where we’d come from, but the tunnel we had come through didn’t seem like the best place to walk. I tried to get Google Maps to give me a walking route back to where we had come from — it provided a ridiculously circuitous 44 minute route around a park that didn’t even look like it was adjacent to where we were standing — no luck there. Looking at the splitting, curving, merging highway I had around me, there were at least 3 different tunnels to choose from — all for cars. There was the one we came from, one that looked like it went much further down (and which would have been hard to get to) and one that I estimated would come out closer to Benjamin’s school. (There are about 5 tunnels that come out along our bus route to school, so I figured it was one of them.) I fully intended to park myself at the first bus stop we found and/or flag down the first cab we saw, but looking around for a few minutes, I saw neither bus stop nor cab, so I chose the tunnel that I thought would be the right one, ran across the road with Benjamin, and set off, disregarding the “no pedestrian” signs we had to pass along the way (if it got impassable, I could just turn around).
If I had had the stroller with me, we would have been completely stuck. Completely. The “sidewalks” (such as they were) in the tunnel were studded every few feet with “wrong way” reflectors that Benjamin and I had to jump over. The traffic in the tunnel was very light, and the walkway was wide, so it wasn’t unpleasant. But it was long. And about 50 yards into the tunnel, I saw that there was an entrance/exit ramp coming up ahead of us — our highway was merging with another roadway underground. Our left hand sidewalk was going to end at the merge, so we had to cross the tunnel highway to continue walking on the right hand side. So, we did. (It was that or stand there until some kind of help magically arrived, which didn’t seem imminent.) We continued on. After another hundred yards or so, I started to worry — were we going to asphyxiate from carbon monoxide? The air seemed fresh, but isn’t that one of those odorless ones? Did I have any clue where we were going, or were we going to come out on a bridge over the river with nowhere to walk, or worse, truly in the middle of a highway somewhere I didn’t anticipate?
That’s when it occurred to me to call Dan and tell him what was going on. He had left shortly after we did, and he had Liam with him (after my parent/teacher meeting at the school, I was planning to pick Liam up from Dan at work). I figured he had to be at work by now, which meant he was only blocks (theoretically, at least) from where we were. Of course, my phone didn’t work in the tunnel.
We continued on. We could see sunlight up ahead, and kept moving towards it. Benjamin was remarkably patient and not freaked out by the entire experience (although he didn’t like how loud the tunnel was). Whether I was doing a great job of demonstrating, “This is no big deal! Look, it’s an adventure! A tunnel!” or if he was completely freaked out but waiting to see how I worked a miracle and sovled everything, I don’t know. We passed several of those “emergency phone” booths (but who would I call, and what were the chances anyone would speak English on the other end?) and were glared at by a firetruck full of firefighters as they sped past (thanks, guys — if you’re glaring because you know we’re not supposed to be in here, mabye you could stop to help or something?!?). Finally, we came up and out into the sunlight.
Hurray! But, where were we? I could see a movie theater up ahead — which was great news, because it was the movie theater on the way to Benjamin’s school. It turned out my guess on which direction to go was a good one — we were actually coming out nearly a third of the way towards Benjamin’s school from where we’d first gotten on the bus! But then, the road, which was bordered on both sides by an 8 foot high chain link fence, turned to the left, away from the movie theater, away from Benjamin’s school. We could see a bike path up ahead that looked like it would take us *exactly* where we wanted to go . . . but there was no way to get there, so we had no option but to continue where the road went. I was finally able to text Dan and ask him to call the school, but when he asked if I needed anything else, I didn’t know what to say — I didn’t even know where I was. (And what was he going to do — come looking for us with Liam and the stroller?)
On we went, down the hill and around the bend, until at last, I could see a landmark we could actually reach — the same train station where we had caught the wrong bus in the first place. Yay! There it was! Which was great, until I realized we had two major roads to cross to get there, again with no sidewalks, no crosswalks and no traffic lights. We were standing on an island of land circled by the exit ramp from the tunnel we’d just left which turned into an entrance ramp for an even bigger road, with hip-high (to me) guard rails on either side and absolutely no shoulder. Charming.
So, I waited for a break in traffic (near as I could tell — it was hard to get a good sightline), hoisted Benjamin onto my hip and clambered over the guardrail, onto the road. I jogged across, nearly flung Benjamin over the rail on the other side, and dragged myself over . . . onto another expanse of drily brown grassed no-man’s land. The last road (2 lanes in each direction, but quiet because it ends at the train station on one end) seemed tame by comparison, though, and we were able to pause for a moment before traffic eased and actually stroll across. I checked my phone again — 6 minutes to the next bus. The right bus. We took it.
I was less than half an hour late to my appointment. The teachers were very understanding and joked about (kind of) similar experiences they’ve had — the phenomenon of catching the wrong bus and ending up someplace completely unexpected is common here, even for the locals. Benjamin was in good spirits the whole way to school (although he read me the number on the bus before we got on).
By the time I picked Liam up from Dan at 9:15 this morning, I was exhausted, and had already been through enough adventure to last me a month. I still can’t explain the Bermuda Triangle/Twilight Zone experience I had with my phone — after getting home and reexamining the map, it turns out I was never on the Donau Ainsel, and I can’t explain why my phone couldn’t figure out where we were. I have seen more of the highway tunnels of Vienna than I cared or planned to during my time here. I am tired and frazzled in that way that only comes from being in a stressful situation and not letting yourself experience it while it was happening. But mostly, I am impressed with Benjamin and his faith in me, and I am glad that I took care of him well enough to deserve it.