On The Road: The Art of Planning and Slovakian Soulmates

The author with her friend, Manaf, his wife, May, and all our kids. (A. Flax photo).

Travel is a strange animal and at its core is part meticulous planning and part reliance on complete happenstance. When it comes to making it work, especially as one half of a couple, I have found balance to be the key.

But even with the best thought-out routes you never know exactly where the road might take you … so it’s best to go along for the ride.

Take my husband, Adam, for example. He is a meticulous travel planner. Some friends have begun calling him “Julie” in homage to a certain cruise director aboard a certain Love Boat because that’s how much of a planner he is.

I must say, his obsession with detail has come in handy this summer as we are traversing Europe with our 17-year-old daughter, Sophie, in tow. This is in stark contrast to years past when we’ve done house swaps and pretty much stayed in one place where we’ve gotten to know the two or three local restaurants and their proprietors, the nice versus nasty neighborhood dogs, and the inevitable park bench full of grumpy old ladies who sit in the village square and cast us the stink eye no matter how many times we pass by laden with groceries and our widest smiles.

This year, we’re bouncing all over — four countries, one month — so the planning has been key and everywhere we’ve been, Adam has had hotels pre-booked, restaurants cased out and local regional desserts well researched.

But all this meticulous planning can come at a cost — our sanity. The truth is, planners don’t like to relinquish control or admit defeat, as those in their orbit know all too well. More than once during our years on the road we’ve trudged miles through hot cities in pursuit of a very specific restaurant or site on Adam’s list only to find it to be mediocre, closed for August (despite what the website said) or, worst of all, in the entirely opposite direction from that in which we had been walking for the last 45 minutes.

It’s taken years of being right, but Adam now knows that before setting out on any trek he needs to hand the phone or map to me so we sail in the right direction from the beginning. That’s how I got my nickname, Christoph — short for Christopher Columbus, the explorer who is said to have “discovered” America as well as that city in Ohio despite the fact he never set foot in either.

So last week when we were in Vienna and I saw on Facebook that one of my best friends from college was en route to Budapest with his family, I knew from my innate sense of geography that it wasn’t that far and jokingly wrote back, “Let’s meet on the Danube.”

I was kidding. But my friend, Manaf, wasn’t.

“Let’s meet halfway,” he replied.

You have to understand that getting together with Manaf is a big deal because although he went to Ohio University (as do two of his three children) he and his family live in Dubai. The accidental crossing of paths is a rarity, particularly when we both have all our family members in tow. I mean really, Adam had never even met Manaf’s wife, May … and they’ve been married for 25 years this month!

So here it was, a chance for meeting, on the Danube no less, and I was determined to go off script. As expected, Adam put up a bit of a fight, but after a quick visual aid courtesy of Google maps even he couldn’t deny that halfway to Budapest from our present location in Vienna wasn’t too far at all, even if we hadn’t made any reservations there.

But ultimately timing is everything, and in an additional stroke of kismet, it turns out the very day that Manaf and family were free to meet us was also the very first day in a month when we had absolutely nothing booked and no definitive plans to be anywhere specific on the planet.

And that, my friends, is how travel works in its ideal state. So on the morning of Wednesday last, we found ourselves sitting in a hotel bar in Bratislava, Slovakia, a destination that has never been on our radar. It was a short 40 minute drive from Vienna Airport where we picked up a rental car for our last week of roaming. As we waited for Manaf and family to arrive by train from Budapest (they admittedly had the longer part of the journey) Adam enjoyed a beer for breakfast — a Pilsner to be exact, which is what one tends to do in the Slavic countries — while Sophie sipped a cappuccino and ate peanuts.

Me? I was captivated by a photo hanging on the wall behind Sophie. It was taken outside CBGB’s in the early 1980s or so — around the same time Manaf and I would have been roaming the streets of New York during ill-fated road trips from Ohio. Strange indeed.

A photo of CBGBs hanging on the wall of a bar in Bratislava, Slovakia. (A. Hinkle photo).

Just then, Manaf walked into the bar with May and their three lovely kids in tow. We hugged, introduced everyone, paired Sophie off with the two Ohio University students so they could convince her why she needs to go there too, and off we went to explore the wonders of Bratislava, a nice city but one that still has the odd aroma of the former Soviet Union at its edges. This is a place where things are just a little off if you know what I mean — the lovely medieval pedestrian center is intact, but it’s populated with not quite charming overly lit cafes and some rather unkempt public squares.

But we had pulled it off. We had, indeed, met on the Danube as promised on Facebook (not like that means anything these days). As we wandered the city, Manaf and I caught up, May and Adam finally got to meet for the first time, and the kids all had a grand time laughing and joking with one another.

We climbed the steep path to Bratislava Castle which looks out on the beautiful blue Danube and from there, could see the city’s perimeter ringed by cell-block housing and an industrial park boasting of being home to a firm called “MacroSoft” (I kid you not). Then, just as we got to the entrance, the castle closed up shop for the day.

But this was one time when it truly didn’t matter to any of us whether we went in or not. This time it was about a journey that climbs hills, crosses time zones, decades and generations. So as a group, we headed back down the cobblestone streets where we settled into one of those funky cafes for a round of well-earned regional beers (or for some among our numbers, a refreshing non-alcoholic beverage).

We laughed more, talked more and wondered where the years had gone. Someone took the beer glass because it was printed with Budvar, the name of the awesome Czech beer it had recently contained. Then as the sun began to set, we got up, walked back to the hotel where we started the day (and where Adam, of course, had thought to book a room) and said farewell to Manaf and family who headed back to the station and the last train of the evening bound for Budapest.

All in all, it was one of those days comprised completely of an unplanned pile of perfection … and there were no regrets, for either me or my husband, because sometimes you just gotta go off the script.