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My Before Sunrise Dream That Became a Planes, Trains and Automobiles Nightmare

a street in Vienna, Austria

Staff Writer Jackson Lanzer chases Before Sunrise filming locations across Europe and tussles with the expectations and reality of travel.

Ever since watching Before Sunrise as a teen, I dreamt of visiting Vienna. For those who have yet to witness the cinematic beauty crafted by Richard Linklater, Before Sunrise is a film about two strangers – Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Céline (Julie Delpy) – who meet on a train from Budapest to Vienna, embrace spontaneity and wander the streets of the city. And, for a touch of Hollywood drama, they only have one day together before Jesse’s flight home to America departs before the sun rises.

As soon as I learnt that reading week is rarely used to read, I booked a train ticket to Vienna. My plan for the week was to fly to Rome, stay for several days and then hop on a 14-hour train journey to Austria.

I truly thought that it was a genius plan. I’d get to see all of Italy through my train window, and more importantly, I’d maximize my time on the train (more train time equals more time for the essential Before Sunrise meet-cute, a chance encounter with an interesting stranger across the aisle).

However, this plan was made by a man blinded by naïveté. He thought train travel was simple and always according to plan. He didn’t know about indefinite delays, tracks blocked by extreme weather or cancellations.

As I walked towards the Roma Termini train station, I received an email from ÖBB, the Austrian railway company, saying that my train to Vienna had been indefinitely delayed. When I called for more information, I was told that indefinitely delayed meant that the train wouldn’t be operational, possibly for days. A storm had struck central Italy, and the tracks my train needed to travel were flooded.

I scrambled to purchase a plane ticket to Vienna. The plot of Before Sunrise be damned, I was at least going to get to the city!

Of course, even that didn’t go as planned. My connecting flight through Munich gave me only 40 minutes to get from the arrival gate to the departure gate. But it got worse, my first flight was delayed on the tarmac. The luggage had taken longer than expected to be delivered to the plane and we couldn’t leave without the luggage. So we sat, waiting to see our saviour: a little airport truck brimming with bags of all variety. This salvation took half an hour to be delivered. By my calculation, now I’d only have 10 minutes between flights. It was going to be a sprint.

We began rolling away from the gate, but then the plane halted again. The pilot said we needed to wait for confirmation that we could take off. My ten minutes for a connection shrivelled into five, and eventually, I reached a spectacular negative ten minutes. I wasn’t going to make the flight.

By the time the plane landed in Munich, my flight to Vienna was already in the air. And I was stuck in Munich until I could get another flight. Daylight began to dwindle, and it wasn’t until that evening that I boarded a plane destined for Vienna.

I landed around midnight. My lone consolation was that a full moon illuminated the city in a silver glow as I searched for my hostel. After dropping off my bag, I wandered the streets of Vienna at 1am, looking for Kleines Café, where Jesse and Céline meet a palm reader who reads their fortune for a couple of euros. While I didn’t find the palm reader (I would have liked to ask if any more flights of mine would be delayed), I did come across a cafe brimming with a cross-section of Vienna: a group of students drank beer, several couples sipped glasses of wine, and a handful of old men read the newspaper as they enjoyed their drinks.

Kleines Café – one of the filming locations of Before Sunrise.

I awoke early the next day and began scouring the city for more Before Sunrise filming locations. In my real-life recreation of the film, it seemed that Google Maps was sadly becoming my co-star (the cancelled train ensured that movie-inspired romance was not a possibility). Before I knew it, I had spent more time enchanted by my glowing screen than I had spent appreciating the beauty of Vienna.

I had missed the entire point of Before Sunrise.

The movie is about living in the moment and the beauty of embracing spontaneity, not mechanically checking off sites on a checklist.

So I finally bade Google Maps farewell and decided to wander. I walked to the Innere Stadt, the historic central district of Vienna: it was filled with endless architectural beauty sprouting atop every street. There are cafes dating back to the nineteenth century, cobblestone streets that carried more hoof marks than tyre marks over the years and cathedrals that had heard centuries of prayers.

The Innere Stadt – the historic central district of Vienna.

I stumbled upon a beautiful garden called the Volksgarten. It was near the Hofburg (the palace of the notoriously big-chinned Habsburg dynasty). Hundreds of trees had recently been planted in the garden and each bore the name of a presumably recently deceased person. It was an entire garden of life growing from death.

A lush green park with flowers and a historic building in the background
Volksgarten (German for People’s Garden)

I then found two antique shops. Each was filled with old books, rare coins and random knick-knacks as well as, oddly enough, collections of already-sent postcards. One collection dated back to the First World War, and it was composed of postcards from soldiers to their loved ones. Another series consisted of postcards sent from cities around the world to Vienna.

I usually don’t buy souvenirs as I travel (thanks to Ryanair’s generous luggage rules), but I decided to purchase two of the postcards. One was a postcard from Rome to Vienna sent in 1924. The antiquarian translated the inscription into English, saying that it was a love letter sent by an Austrian man to his lover. The other postcard was sent in 1917 from Vienna to what is now the Czech Republic, but had somehow ended up back in Vienna over the years. The antiquarian said the inscription was written in Czech and could not be translated. Nonetheless, I bought it, deciding that the mystery of the letter was almost as exciting as knowing what it said.

Next, I walked inside a cathedral called Jesuitenkirche and listened to the melodies of an organ. I’m not a religious man, but sitting in a cathedral has some sort of power: history, music and architecture combining to create an ethereal atmosphere.

The inside of Jesuitenkirche: history, music and architecture combining to create an ethereal atmosphere.

I sat for several minutes, deep in thought, before turning towards the exit. On my way out the door, I noticed a staircase down to a vault. Every couple of minutes, people vanished down the stairs and, naturally, I figured I’d follow the vanishing people into the dark basement of the cathedral (I clearly wouldn’t survive a horror film).

I found a room lit only by candlelight. As I walked further, I realized that I was standing inside a crypt, and the walls around me bore the names of those buried beneath my feet. My curiosity compelled me further, and I walked deeper into the crypt, now almost completely enveloped by darkness. The sounds of the organ echoed in the darkness, creating an eerie atmosphere. I soon decided that I’d rather my day of Before Sunrise didn’t become a day of The Conjuring, and so I hurried up the stairs and towards the streets of Vienna.

The evening was approaching, and I glanced back at my Google Maps for directions to Café Sperl, the place where Jesse and Céline had mimed fake telephone calls to their friends back home to tell of their adventures. However, I figured that I’d likely get kicked out of the cafe if I began miming a telephone conversation by myself, so I instead chose to enjoy the ambience of the cafe in silence, sipping on a latte and writing a quick entry into my travel journal.

By the time I finished my latte, it was getting late, and I headed back to my hostel. I set my alarm for 6am with the plan of grabbing a slice of Sachertorte, a variety of cake created in Austria in 1832, before my flight.

The famous Viennese Sachertorte, served in Hotel Sacher.

My flight home was surprisingly successful, and I didn’t even get stranded in a foreign airport! Regardless, after days of my journey spent hurriedly buying tickets, calling train corporations and sprinting through airports, rather than experiencing what I hoped would be a magical journey by rail, I couldn’t help but feel that my Before Sunrise dream had become a Planes, Trains and Automobiles nightmare (which is fittingly a movie about a hellish, but comedic journey).

Yet, perhaps it was meant to be. It was a reminder that Before Sunrise is all about living in the moment. And a plan gone awry is nothing but the moment reasserting itself upon life.

Jackson Lanzer is a college student from Los Angeles studying international affairs and journalism. He is a staff writer for his school’s newspaper and a writer for a sketch comedy group. Several of his short stories have appeared in 365tomorrows.

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