We sent assistant editor Foster Kamer to go on a press junket to Austria to participate in the Audi Driving Experience. He came back with this, the second in a two-part report of his travels. The first part is here.
This thing keeps happening here, in Austria. A complete loss of direction, purpose and bearing. It’s not a exactly a bad feeling, though it’s certainly not a good one — mostly it’s just strange. Being on a junket is a patently strange experience. After all, you’re in a place you’ve never been, being given things you didn’t earn and couldn’t normally afford, just because you’re going to write something. That’s it.
I learned that the best way to counter this feeling is to remind myself that I’m on the job, trying to bring home a story. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve told myself this over the course of a day that includes driving around on an Austrian ice field with some of the world’s foremost experts on doing so, before returning to my expensive hotel room, and an expensive dinner, and an expensive hotel bar session. And then, to “Katie,” a 24 year-old Hungarian stripper. I’m on the job. Even when “Katie’ grins and passes me her champagne flute, a straw and an offer: “Go! Do it! It’s okay,” I think, I’m on the job. The call and response of “Do it! It’s okay,” and “I’m on the job” is basically the unofficial song of junket travel. And in the great tradition of junket travel, over the last two days, I learned the tune. It goes something like this:
Learn to Slide
The first morning’s exercises started out simply enough. A nice, slow drive through the course. Breaking maneuvers to make sure we knew how to drive the cars, which then lead into lunch. After which, the real fun begins: drifting. Our lunches were served at a hotel about a half a mile walk from the ice course in Kaprun. They were notable, bonding experiences for the group, because when you’re in a foreign land, you want to try foreign food, right? And Austrian food sounds exciting! Except, the thing is:
The Itinerary Bubble Dichotomy
After our arrival, a night exploring the town, a get-to know you dinner, an early bedtime, an early wakeup, and a quick instructional on what we’d be doing, we started to drive. Less than 24 hours in Austria, and we were doing what we’d been sent there to do: partake in the Audi Driving Experience, which involved learning how to drive cars around an ice field at various speeds. At times, it didn’t even feel like I was really ever that far from home, or in that strange of a land, even though I was 4,000 miles from New York, in a country I’d never been to. At a certain point the junket just becomes part of your week.
That’s not to be jaded about it, but when you’re traveling as press, with a tight, specific schedule, your ability to travel in the traditional sense is a little hindered. We, The Junketeers, were operating in a bubble. So the few interactions you have with native cultures become both precious and jarring. The most visceral of those is often, of course, the food. And how was the food?
Lunch 1: The Questionable Authenticity of Chicken Cutlet
It all sucked. Truly. This isn’t to pigeonhole all food in Austria as bad: it probably isn’t. Austrian
This is what New York will do to you. Various cuisines by various chefs from around the world, often the best at what they do, which is how they make it in New York. In this case, Kurt Gutenbrunner and his restaurants in New York, which include Blaue Gans in Tribecca. Gutenbrunner’s food is really, really good, and he’s an Austrian chef. And we often hear about being able to get the ‘authentic’ versions of food when traveling abroad, but what’s more authentic than Gutenbrunner’s food besides the setting it’s served in? And does being authentic necessarily make it better? In this case, nothing, and no. Maybe it was just the circumstances or places. Maybe I would’ve enjoyed it more — or tried to enjoy it more — had I paid for it. But every meal was some variation on a large cut of meat, not particularly seasoned, or a platter of hard boiled eggs and sausages of various size and flesh-tone that I tried to avoid. The best Austrian food we had — and we had or were offered it at least three times — was either Brown Soup with some alien dumpling patty, like so:
Or Schnitzel. Schnitzel, schnitzel everywhere. I ordered some as soon as I arrived and billed it to the hotel room (which of course, Audi was covering, incidentals and all). It and every piece of chicken schnitzle we received, looked something like this:
For the record, this was the most unique preparation of schnitzel I had on the trip: in a salad, where “schnitzel” basically became “chicken nuggets.” Another Junketeer from New York on our trip observed it best: It’s just chicken fucking cutlet. That’s all it is. Fried chicken cutlet with lemon. You can get this at a bodega.
And he was right. Maybe it would’ve been better without the inherent jadedness, and without being in a group, or maybe it was just the places we hit, or the region we were in. But the general consensus was that it wasn’t so great. And when you spend your day sliding around on cars and boosting out of turns, you want something, well, comforting. Which this wasn’t.
Learn to Slide, Part II
If you’ve ever played a racing videogame, or even seen a racing movie, you know that there’s incredible potential for the kind of fun to be had in drifting: sliding around corners, using the traction and the weight to accelerate out of a turn like a rocket. The mere act of sliding and playing with momentum is, in and of itself, incredible: using exerted force to carry something somewhere after the accelerating forces have stopped working. Slip N Slides, sliding into a base, anything in which there’s a somewhat precarious (but trusting) relationship with physics involved. The faith that you’re going to continue moving a certain place, a certain way, and letting motion carry you is on some level, totally absurd. When you’re sliding on solid ground, like dirt or gravel or a tarp, it’s one thing. It’s a little easier to measure and manage than when you’re, say, moving on a surface that’s constantly in flux. Like, say, ice. Or when you’re moving about a ton or so of metal machinery over ice. Which we started to do.
Unless you’re racing, most of the time your car is sliding is a situation you need to not try to benefit from. The idea behind the Audi Driving Experience isn’t to make race car drivers out of people, but simply better drivers, and in this case, better drivers when it came to troublesome situations like a car sliding across ice. That said, each exercise involved learning how to put the car into a slide as it did taking it out of one. One’s a racing technique, not exactly on a need-to-know basis. Why the hell would you want to make your car slide on ice if you’re driving somewhere that isn’t towards a checkered flag? The other’s simply a technique, which can be (and most often is actually) used for defensive driving. But both are incredibly fun. The first turns we “induced” were understeering turns: where the wheels in the front of the car lose traction/grip from the ice. It’s fixed by depressing the acceleration, light steering corrections in the opposite direction of movement, and then back over again, and then remaining calm. This is harder than it sounds, because it’s hard to tell when the car is drifting with the front wheels, and thus, you’re freaking the fuck out.
The other kind of steering is the “fun,” kind, which is oversteering, when the back wheels lose traction: to get the car oversteering, we jerked the wheel in one direction, and pulled it towards the other, and accelerated out. Essentially, you’re driving like a very skilled Duke of Hazzard. We did six rounds of different types of steering layouts until each driver got the maneuver correct, and then, switched drivers. And then we were done for the day.
So, what do you do with all that time you’re not driving the car?
1. The Snack Shack. Audi had a shack set up at the end of the course with bathrooms, coffee, various wonderful snacks, and heat. We went in there a few times during the day to recalibrate and talk about what was going on somewhere that wasn’t in the middle of an ice course. It was a posh luxury, all things considered, though it was debatable whether it or the car was more comforting.
2. Radio. You could try to navigate the Austrian radio stations, which were either Mozart, German Pop, or if you were lucky, current American pop, mixed in with Eric Carmen, who the Austrians are apparently crazy about. Everyone heard “Hungry Eyes” at least once.
3. Conversation! Junketeers bond, because you’re not the only one experiencing something surreal. So you get to talking. And the first day’s talk yielded some interesting intel: some of the guys went to the strip club next to the hotel the evening before. From the few cagey co-junketeers who went, all I could gather is that the girls there were “cute,” that they were playing Tupac over the PA, and that they’d had a “decent time” drinking the night before, but not for too long, because they were planning on coming back the night after. With all of us.
Having only been to one other strip club in my life once–which, naturally, was also on a “work” “assignment”–I had my hesitations. I’m not a fan of The Great Frontier of Our Planet’s Titty Bars. Having grown up in Las Vegas, the appeal’s always been–to be fair–a little pedestrian. That said, what the hell else was I going to do? Work?
The Champagne Trick
Katie’s from some town she tells me I wouldn’t be able to pronounce, anyway. Katie’s on winter break from university in Budapest, where she’s studying Urban Planning and Mass Transportation. She’s also 5’5, blonde, slim, and can’t stop smiling. Even though she’s only been in the quaint little ski town of Kaprun for three days, where she’ll remain for another nine or ten days after tonight, she’s having what appears to be a pretty great time. She’s also almost completely naked, hold a sparkling, bedazzled blue bra and thong, and is squeezing my leg between hers as she passes me another flute of champagne and a straw at the bar, and asks me to “do the trick.”
HIPS was literally a stone’s throw away from our hotel, conveniently located a drunken five-mintue stagger away from our lobby, and made for tourists: HIPS the sign proclaimed. GIRLS, DANCING, TABLES! the not-so-subtle subtext read. As far as strip club names go, it was both hysterically obvious and also, somehow, not as sleazy as it could’ve been. There are far worse body parts to objectify through naming than HIPS. An editor from a men’s lifestyle mag and I–the youngest ones on the trip–decided to hold back at the hotel bar for a few drinks to get prepared for this experience. He’d been there the night before, and advised this situation well, especially when we remembered that in Europe, Cuban goods aren’t banned. Out with the Havana Club 7 Year, out with the Cohibas, out with the room charge. Finally, we were drunk enough to show up. The sight waiting for us?
The entrance was down a set of stairs, which led to a dark room quartered off by a curtain, and then, the main room: booths, a catwalk with a stripper pole, a bar, a man in a stool in the far corner, a bartender, and a few other patrons besides us, who were outnumbered by relatively interested to not-at-all interested strippers, most of whom were in fact Hungarian. In other words, if there’s such a thing as a ski town strip club cliche, this was it. The strippers would sit by guys in the booths if they bought them drinks, but the only drinks they could be bought was champagne. High standards! So, once some of The Junketeers had settled into some booths, champagne was purchased, and strippers were friendly.
But something strange was happening: the strippers, upon receiving their glasses of champagne, were ominously passed a paper-covered straw by the bartender. They would take the straw with the paper on, and dip it into the flute of champagne, which would then start to foam after all the bubbles had come to the surface. What is that? I was slightly perturbed. Are they putting drugs in their champagne? Where the fuck are we? Thankfully: I was proven wrong. After learning that Katie was only there on a ten-day whim with her friend, who worked at HIPS seasonally, and also of her aspirations to work in mass transit planning despite the difficulty in coming by those jobs where she’s from, I worked up the courage to ask her what was “in” the straws. She laughed at me.
“Bubbles,” she pointed with the straw. “So we don’t, you know,” she struggled to find the word, and then made an “UURRP” sound while covering her naval.
“Oh, fuck! It gets the carbonation out!” Somehow, this didn’t occur to me before. Living in New York and not having a car, this will no question turn out to be the most commonly utilized information I got from the trip.
The rest of the night was, as nights like those are wont to become, a blur. But there are three decent pieces of proof from that night that helped me put together the rest of it:
1. Written notes, now lost, which were
2. Used for an email to my bosses to capture “of-the-moment” sentiment. For the sake of “journalistic integrity,” an excerpt:
i got fucking WASTED and got behind the bar and was playing the music in the strip club and [redacted] (who is on this junket with me, who [redacted]) was making drinks behind the bar, because we basically took over this small mountain town Austrian strip club called HIPS.
ALSO, the girls were only allowed to be bought champagne, and the [redacted] guys kept buying it for them. the amazing part: they kept putting straws with the paper still on them in the flutes and stirring them around, and the champers would get all bubbly, and i thought maybe the straws were filled with drugs or something. WRONG. Katie the Hungarian stripper taught me that, as it turns out, the paper on the straw helps bring all the bubbles to the surface and thus out of the champagne so they don’t get all bloated from drinking it! to my endless amusement and sense of wonder! so naturally, by the end of the night, while all the other guys had boobies in their faces, all the strippers were passing their champagne flutes to me to stir the bubbles out of with straws, which i couldn’t help but grin at every time it happened. i spent my night stirring bubbles out of champagne flutes and playing Jay-z songs over the stereo. one stripper named “Katya” from Budapest knew all the words to “no diggity” and i expressed my astonishment and this girl looks at me and cocks her head sideways and goes “we’re not from another planet, you know.” BOOM, ROASTED, foster. She’s correct.
But also, no, you’re not, but you are a stripper in a tiny Austrian ski town,
and I am here. So there’s that.
a blog post on this is obviously forthcoming.
and 3. My bank statement.
Sometime around 2AM, I stumbled back to my room and, after knuckling an email or two out on my keyboard, passed out with the lights on.
Now, a lot of champagne was stirred, if I remember correctly what little I can. And the one lap dance I got–my first ever, from “Katya,” which got less and less sexy the more we argued about why she thought Hackensack, New Jersey was a better place to visit than New York City, which, no thanks, I’ll save for the memoir–is represented by that bill, and is the only thing represented by that bill. Without incriminating anyone, I can’t confirm that Audi paid for five thousand Euro worth of strippers and champagne as part of a press junket. But I can confirm that I didn’t. And that I was ceremoniously very, very drunk. And also, that the kinds of people taken on junkets are too broke to afford that kind of night. And that the other Junketeers who’d done these kinds of things before — and yes, there are junket-circuit writers out there — noted, very clearly, that this was not your “average junket.” Not having been on any others, I can’t attest to this, but I do know that it sure as hell wasn’t your average vacation, either.
The Audi Hangover Experience.
I also can’t say that I was still drunk when we started driving the next day. And I’m pretty sure I wasn’t! Because you don’t really ever start puking while you’re still drunk, right? That comes later. Which was about ten minutes after we arrived to Kaprun the next morning. And then another hour after that. We got in our cars and a walkie talkie from Harald, our instructor, with his voice coming out of it, was in the passenger seat. “Good morning,” our de facto pit chief announced. “Let’s start off simply.” That day, we’d be practicing all the moves we learned the day before, as well as the “Scandinavian Flick,” a rally maneuver that involves steering the car on ice without acceleration out of, and then into a turn (thus causing the intense oversteering), and then punching the gas out of the turn.
If you’ve ever had a hangover, you can only imagine the fun doing the “Scandinavian Flick” for an hour straight with one is. At one point, I got out of the car to take in the view of the course, and by “take in the view,” I mean, “breathe air that wasn’t moving around me in directions my head wasn’t able to compute.” The night before, I’d managed to burn a CD of music for the next day’s driving. I tried to put it on, and the loud, bass-driven rap that came out of the stereo lurched memories of the night before. As did the stench of expired Jasmine and Malboro Menthols on my jacket.
Lunch came three hours later as a relief.
Lunch 2: Playing the Part
The options got worse from the day before, so most of the Junketeers ordered “pasta, with sauce,” which was the de facto vegetarian option at most of the places we went to. But most of us needed something fairly familiar, and straight carbs pretty much did the trick. I could feel the color in my face returning, and also realized that this would be my one chance to talk to a high up car executive face-to-face. Nobody else had asked any questions of the company since we’d been on the junket, which I found a little strange. And since I found myself sitting across from the Vice President of Corporate Public Relations that morning, I threw some questions at him: about Audi, where the company is now, what went wrong at GM (where he once was), why car companies weren’t moving towards greener cars faster, why they weren’t investing in better fuels, and what their plan to sustain themselves as an industry was.
Needless to say, there’s a reason he’s the VP of Corporate PR at Audi. His answers were both nuanced and vague. One thing, however, became very, vey clear from a conversation that nobody else at the table got involved in, hangover or not: while somewhat self-evident, the problems facing cars right now, more than ever before, particularly in regards to how they can innovate, are complicated, and often, stark. It was a little jolting to hear an expert discuss it in these terms. And while this isn’t a car magazine, a writer who’s by any means an expert on these issues, or much that could be sussed out over a lunch, hangover or not, I asked questions, and I got answers. Granted those answers–like most that come from complicated issues–only yielded more questions. But I’m not sure every junket is like this, either. There was that.
The Home Stretch
After a few more practice rounds, we took our final drives.
After the final drives, we took our times, said our goodbyes to our instructors, picked up our certificates, and left.
We went go-karting on ice across the street from the race track. This was probably planned for us to get the rest of our pedal-to-the-metal kicks out.
There are other things: there’s the Austrian airport on return, which sold every ware possible with Mozart’s face on it, or the Business Class Tower lounge in Frankfurt, which was nothing short of incredible. There’s the dinner we had that night, which we took a snowcat up a mountain to get to, and the polka singers who knowingly tortured this table of mostly disheveled New Yorkers, who were still recovering from the night before. There was the sledding down the mountain after the dinner, the final round of drinks, there are any number of details ostensibly worth counting on this trip.
But what I learned, besides The Champagne Trick and The Scandinavian Flick, is this: Junkets aren’t typical travel experiences. They’re skewed. The lack of a fair services trade in the place of an implied agreement for coverage is at best, strange, at worst, downright corrupt, but most often, a vague, uncomfortable line. Because even if I legitimately enjoyed myself, and sing the praises of those who backed the trip, I’ve still inherently been corrupted by the Corporate Junket Machine, because they just made their investment back on me. If I had a shit time, I’m an ungrateful asshole who should keep his mouth shut, lest he get blackballed from access (or worse, for some writers, further junkets). Between these two stances are also the deep, dark philosophical waters of the world’s material culture, and the nature of influence. Do we even need shiny, fast, one-ton cars and lessons on how to slide them around on ice? Don’t answer that. The bottom line is that without the Audi Junket Experience, there is no assessment of the Audi Driving Experience, except by magazines who can afford to cover expenses for writers to make one. Which as we all know are becoming less and less the case.
More importantly: if you’re given the opportunity to take a trip to somewhere you’ve never been before, to be on paid leave from the office while it happens, to do things that people with the kind of money you can’t get from a career as an Assistant Editor get to do, what kind of ungrateful asshole are you if you don’t take it? I’m not a “car person,” but I do like traveling, getting out of the city, and yes: driving cars. And this was the perfect vacation in that there was something decidedly innocent about the fun we were having when we weren’t at the strip club. How often is it that you’re being paid to do things kids and fully grown adults only dream of doing? And then being on the clock while you do it?
If there’s one wholly uncorruptable element of a junket, it’s that as a writer, you’ll never actually be able to sing its praises to maximum effect. When you’re paid to be doing things other people shell out serious cash for, there’s an inverted purity to the experience: unless they put my job up on the auction block, it’s one that literally can’t be bought. Until then, I’ll continue to keep enjoying things like this: