Sunday, September 26, 2010

PERSPECTIVES From the Far Side of the Alps

The Man in the Middle
My mother, who died in September, 1993, always started her letters with a weather report, as is common among Midwesterners and Dakotans, and based, probably in part, on her being a farm girl.  She was an amazing letter writer, and long before Facebook and e-mail made it easy to stay in touch, she communicated with scores of relatives and old and new friends through pen and paper. One of my many regrets in life is that I didn’t write her nearly as often as she wrote me.

When I was a college freshman, age 18, and stupid, I wrote her a scathing letter telling her I didn’t really care what the weather was; I wanted to know about LIFE.  Her next letter began, “The weather is sunny and warm today….”  Parent/child relationships were different then, and I remember that letter often as her way of telling me to back off. I imagine if she were still alive, she’d still begin her letters to me with news on the weather, only now I would be delighted.

So, in homage to my mother, here’s the weather in Vienna.

Today, Sunday, is cold, cloudy, and wet. Last night we had heavy showers and strong winds, and for the next few days, it’s supposed to be overcast and rainy. That’s fairly typical here, but there have been some glorious, sunny autumn days as well. We’re getting used to the September chill we avoided in Virginia for the past 9 years – it’s that brisk air that warns of real winter on its way, not that pale facsimile of winter we enjoyed on Cypress Drive (with the exception of last year’s little blizzard).  One difference here is the weather is so changeable that some days I feel like I’m menopausal again – hot, cold, sweat, shiver, jacket on, jacket off, window open, window closed – all within the space of minutes. Women friends of a certain age, you know of what I speak

It’s been a very good week here on W√§hringerstrasse. Friday night Jim had his first Japanese karate class at a dojo within walking distance of the apartment, and his fellow classmates – all Austrians - invited him out for a beer. On Friday and Saturday, Keir was in Munich playing volleyball and staying with an American family in Germany. (His comment about Munich International School was: Man, all the girls are so hot.) My highlight was I spent three hours walking in the Vienna Woods with a new friend, Gillian – a lovely woman from Scotland. It was like being immersed in a warm bubble bath to hear English spoken, especially in her soothing Scottish brogue.
Colin Sorting Apples 

Ocean and Reeve 
Many of you have had questions about how day-to-day life in Vienna differs from life in the States, so I’ll try to answer a couple, but first, it’s time to play the grandparent card. Here are our adorable grandsons – Colin in Maryland whom we haven’t seen since July and miss terribly and Ocean in France whom we haven’t seen since May and also miss terribly but plan to see in October. Oh, by the way, we miss their parents, too, and their Uncle Dylan in New York, who, we are excited to report, will visit us at Christmas

Regarding differences, let’s start with the basics:

Bathrooms, Bidets and WCs

Often, Austrian bathrooms and toilets (also labeled WC) are separate rooms, and die Toilette doesn’t have a sink, so you have to go to das Badezimmer to wash your hands. This is true in our apartment. Some of the styles of toilets are quite unlike those in the U.S., but others are similar; a toilet basically is a toilet, and they’re all much better than those I used in rural Peru, which, well, never mind. What is different is that beside every toilet, whether in a private home or public place, is a toilet brush, and the expectation is that when you finish, you clean that toilet, should it require cleaning. At least, this is the case if you have a shelf toilet, which we did in the B & B, so we assume it’s true in general since I saw a sign in one bathroom that I think translated into something like: "Do this."
Flachspueler translates to "bad idea"

At first, this is a tad unnerving, but then there’s this wonderful egalitarianism to such a thing, and I wonder when Secretary of State Clinton or the pope visit, do they, too, pick up that brush and do their duty?  I’m sure Ms. Clinton does; she’s a Midwesterner after all. I’m not so sure about the infallible one.

Some public toilets require payment (50 cents or 1 euro, about 66 cents or $1.30 depending on the day) paid either into a slot or to an unfortunate human. The public toilets generally have heavy, full-size doors with well-crafted locks. I mention this because some of my ESL students have commented on how weird it is that American bathroom stalls leave so much space at the bottom, you can see people’s feet and lower legs, and so much at the top, you can, if so inclined, peek over, and sometimes, due to flimsy or misaligned locks, you can see the occupant through the crack between the door and the stall.  The Japanese especially think this is terribly primitive, and now that I live in Vienna, so do I. But Hollywood would have a tough adjustment to make – no more cops kicking in the bathroom stall doors looking for the inevitable bad guy; they’d break their legs.

We are fortunate in that we have a large bathtub, so large, in fact, that there’s no way to use it. By the time the water gets a few inches deep, either you’ve gotten bored or the hot water has run out. But, the shower, for the most part, works fine once you get used to the hand-held option being the only option and when the drain actually does its job efficiently, which is, well, some of the time (this is an older building, after all).

You figure it out 
Yes, we have a bidet. I’m not yet a convert, but it is interesting, and occasionally thrilling (just kidding). But it’s crammed in beside the aforementioned tub and the washing machine. I’ve tried to imagine anyone of any heft or with long legs or a bad hip being able to avail him or herself of the thing. For more on how-to-use-a-bidet, just go to YouTube to be both enlightened and entertained.

We have a washing machine, that has unbelievably long cycles, but which leaves the clothes very clean. As in many apartments and some houses, there is no dryer. Instead, since we don’t have access to clotheslines outside, we lay everything on dryer racks in the bathroom or bedroom, turn on a fan, and wait.  Unlike the apartment folks in Marseilles, people here don’t hang their wash outside their windows. The water here is very hard. Sometimes the liquid softener works, and when it doesn’t, we use the towels as loofahs or sandpaper.

The good thing is, we wash our clothes less often. The bad thing is, we wash our clothes less often. And, we iron more.

Austrian finances: Pressure, Pressure, Pressure

The banking system here is mind-blowing.  As I mentioned before, checks are not used (and, yes, at home, we increasingly used electronic payment, but not always). Instead, transactions are mostly in cash, and since the ATMs dispense only fifties and hundreds, you frequently pay with what in the U.S. would be a $100 bill. The first time we were paying, we had a couple of the 100-euro bills out, and Keir told us to put the money away because we looked like rich Americans flaunting our wealth. Hardly. Because of the ATMs, everybody often pays with big bills, which sometimes are checked in special is-this-counterfeit machines.

The other ways to pay are electronic transfers or debit cards, both of which have limits you haven’t necessarily been told about.  After we opened our account weeks ago, we were deluged with official-looking letters all written in German. Two of them came with rows and rows of lengthy numerical codes at the bottom. Now, Vienna is a center for international government organizations, so we assume there are spies around every corner (much like in the neighborhoods back in Fairfax County). In fact, some of Keir’s friends can’t tell him what their parents do or did – you know the drill, they’d have to kill him.

So, when you get an official letter you can’t read and at the bottom are columns of random numbers, unlike anything you’ve seen since your last Nancy Drew book, you think, “It’s a trick.” And the temptation is to burn it. But, no, that would be bad. Those numbers are how you transfer money, and they have little to do with American routing or account numbers (which you also need). Instead, they’re like check numbers. You log onto your account (something we’ve yet to be successful at, but we’ve gotten to know some of the neighborhood bank workers fairly well), and two numbers appear in bold type. Then you take out the letter, look at your list of codes, (and despite the account being joint, we have separate lists of codes), find those two numbers and then enter the remaining numbers.

For example:

3211223   4575625   9443220   4434543   3243220  4072335  9443220  2376783
6573833   1173635  4534543     8773335  7843220  2988889  5590572  0509877

You have 48 of these codes, and they can show up in any order. You find the bold numbers, write in the next five, put in the other info, and, voila, the money is gone. And then you cross out that code.  Now, we have no idea what happens when you run out of codes or if you lose that piece of paper the day you have to pay a large ransom to save a family member. I guess we’ll figure that out later.

Also, they give you a very lengthy number labeled: PIN nummer, but it’s not the PIN number as we know it; that’s in a different place with a different name.

When we set up our account, the bank person helping us was quitting her job in two days, and though young, couldn’t or didn’t want to speak English, and she wasn’t particularly attentive. When we got the letters, they were addressed to Frau Snow and Frau Dawson.  Last week Jim had to go to the bank office at IIASA (a bank employee comes once a week and sits in a glass enclosure) because we were in trouble for my not signing all of the forms the inattentive bimbo had handled. Jim mentioned jokingly that we were worried that we might get kicked out of the country for having an illegal marriage. Not to worry, gay civil unions (not marriage yet) are recognized in Austria. Gay partners have almost identical rights to married people (adoption and artificial insemination are the exceptions).  Let me say that again: in this very Catholic country, gay civil unions are recognized.

(The IIASA banker was so concerned about the Frau Jim thing that he apologized profusely and repeatedly, then handled a rather large transfer we had pending instead of making us do it).

Cost of Living (It's cheap if you don't buy anything)

It’s expensive here. Clothing and shoes are especially pricey.  I was amazed whenever my students who were au pairs from Europe or South Africa told me that they had bought so many shoes in the U.S., they had to ship them separately when they returned home.  The reasons? Payless, DSW, Target… I get it. Shoe stores are everywhere here, and the shoes are quite wonderful, but I’ll be lucky if I buy a single pair before returning to the States. I know I won’t need to ship a box of new shoes separately. (Incidentally, I feel so cool when I refer to the States: Have you been to the States? Back home in the States… When we return to the States. It doesn’t take a whole lot to amuse me, the trailing spouse, these days.)

The other reason things are expensive is because even financial nincompoops such as Jim and I pay attention to the exchange rate. And the news is not good. When a euro is worth $1.33, that’s bad. What that means is that whenever we transfer funds from the U.S., we lose. Without being too precise, if we transfer $3,000 American dollars, it comes here as 2,000 euros, but things are not cheaper here.  Ouch. It puts us in a bind as to what to hope for. Right now, we really wish the dollar and euro would be 1:1. That way we transfer our remaining savings here without losing our proverbial shirts. Also, it would be really good for the U.S. But, when we leave, we’d be quite happy if one euro was worth, oh, I don’t know, ten dollars, because then Jim’s IIASA retirement account would be quite substantial when we transfer it home. Of course, the U.S. would no longer be worth returning to.

Or maybe none of this is true. I can see Will, our math professor son-in-law, shaking his head and wishing we had any clue at all with regard to math and finances.  Oh, well. It gets worse.

Tipping (Hurry! He's waiting!) 

The other mathematical challenge is tipping. You do tip the wait staff here, but only 5 to 10 percent (because they’re actually paid a fair wage). Not hard, right? But, what happens is the waiter hands you the bill and waits. The pressure is extreme. You immediately have to figure a percentage, add it to the bill, get out your mix of bills and coins and then subtract very quickly in your head to tell the waiting waiter how much change you want in return. It’s rude to leave the tip on the table, but it’s rude not to tip appropriately, so to avoid breaking into a panic sweat, we usually opt for the money on the table, understanding that we have just committed yet another Ugly American faux pas. If they could just be sensible and do it like Americans do. Lest you notify the State Department about the damage we’re doing to the international perception of American math skills, we are getting better at this. Really. And I did pass calculus in college, but those silly assume-this-to-be-true proofs aren’t helping me here.

 Grocery Shopping -- Daily Visits to the Billa

Ours looks like this one 
Another pressure point. When you go to the Billa, the small but useful grocery store, or the Spar, which is a bigger, better grocery store, they have one thing in common: few check-out clerks and very little space. You do your own bagging here, preferably in your own backpack or tote bag, which is good, but there’s very little room to do it. Some people just return their purchases to the cart or basket they’ve just emptied, and then move over to these ledges, also very small, to pack their bags. We don’t usually buy much in one visit, but we pack our backpack as quickly as possible (and not very wisely  - packing eggs quickly is never a good idea), hand over the money (usually a 50 or a 100) and then the clerk might ask in German if we have any coins in addition to the paper money, so his transaction will be easier, but we don’t understand what he’s saying, and the next customer is usually crowding us at that point (there are cultural spatial differences here), and we get flustered. We say: Es tut mir leid. (I’m sorry.) We don’t speak very much German. (blah blah blah) Then we look pathetic. If nothing else, this living in a foreign country without the language is humbling. And that’s good because it teaches you a lesson once again in:


One of my favorite things to do in my ESL classes,  is I bring in my large, laminated upside-down map of the world.  This is a map in which the world is “upside down” but the words are “right side up.” I have three or four students put it up, and while they’re struggling, their classmates start yelling, “It’s upside down! It’s upside down!” And the map putter-uppers get confused and disagree among themselves. It’s a moving moment of world unity – everyone is confused. Then some notice the words, and their brows furrow, and they look puzzled, and some get indignant. No matter where they’re from, the map initially upsets them, but later, during breaks or after class, I watch as they stand in front of that map and stare thoughtfully at it as they try to find their countries, such as South Korea, which is now north of North Korea.

The point of this map is perspective. Since there’s no up or down in space, the up/down we’re all used to on the map is simply a human construct; it’s what we’re all accustomed to.

I use the map to teach the word “perspective,” but also as an indication of how unquestioning we are about our own perspectives.  In addition, I see it as a visual representation of how it feels to be in a foreign culture – everything is probably there, just not where you’re used to seeing it. It can be very disconcerting.

So, imagine an Austrian living in the U.S. for the first time. This is what she’d say to the folks back home:

Can you believe it? These Americans actually have their toilets in the same rooms as their bathtubs and they don’t clean the toilet after they use it and they don’t use a bidet. No wonder they take so many showers, the filthy pigs. And, this is so weird, if you use a public bathroom, people can see your legs and feet and even peek in on you. A bunch of perverts, that’s what they are. And some old people even use these weird things called “checks” that are so incredibly inconvenient (I know you don’t know what they are; google it) and you’d think they didn’t know it’s the TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY.  And this is what really gets me. They actually leave the tip on the table! Can you imagine being that rude, and leaving the money with the dirty dishes?!!  Barbarians all!

Hmm. People and culture. Strange realities.

And I haven’t even begun to tell you about the Austrian death wish…. Next time.

Snippets of the week:  favorite German and Austrian words.



Such harsh words for such wonderful things: jewelry and whipped cream.

Then there’s this word, which I needed to use yesterday:

Staubsaugerbeutel: vacuum cleaner bag

Here’s one that I really like:

Nestbeschmutzer:  a bird that fouls its own nest; used to describe someone who is critical of his or her country or government.

Misti at the Russian Memorial fountain

Our favorite Klimt
Belvedere Fountain. Typical Vienna beyond the trees

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Statues, and where they go to die

Sept. 19, 2010

Settling In 

This week it has fallen to me to write Viennanotes.  We are settling into a rhythm, but we haven't quite figured out the tune.

Misti and I spend an hour or two, often more, wandering around town on Saturdays and Sundays. We've become fascinated with the seemingly infinite numbers of statues here … on buildings, on streets, in parks.  There are so many that they tend to blur out … it's hard to notice an interesting statue when it is standing in a crowd.  More on that in a bit.

Our daily rhythm is as follows:

Keir is up and out by 7:20 a.m. to walk to the corner and catch his school bus, which is a massive bus of the type rock stars tour in.   He gets home around 4ish if he doesn't have volleyball.  On weekends he heads off in the evening with his friends, usually in the historic 1st District.  Teenagers drink here, and he is slowly pushing to expand his parent-imposed limit from two beers a night (only on weekends) to three.

He's on the JV volleyball team, and yesterday they hosted American kids from Frankfurt, Germany.  Next weekend, he heads to Munich for a series of volleyball games.  He should see most of Europe before the season's over.

He's working hard on his studies – small classes, really good teachers and a lot of peer pressure seem to be motivating him.

Misti has walked countless kilometers around Vienna.  She heads out and wanders until she is lost, then finds her way home again.  She went to a newcomers meeting last week and met interesting people from Australia, Britain and Scotland.  She also learned that there is a name for her in the international community – a "trailing spouse."   That'll boost your self-image.

She's spreading her resume around town and may start some editing projects at IIASA, where I work.  Everyone has told us that there will be countless opportunities to teach ESL, and maybe there are . . . but they aren't quite as obvious when you actually look for them.  But it is early yet …

A quick word about my work before I go to more interesting things.  I'm slowly getting the basics of Dreamweaver, the web software, under control.  My job is to take science papers and projects and write about them in a way that is understandable to a broader audience.  I've been doing that for a long time, so I'm comfortable with it.  But then I have to take that material … and material from others in my department … and put it on the IIASA web site.   That is new and the source of a lot of angst.  I'm getting better, but for those of you who don't ever mess with what goes into building a web, here is something you can do right now to get a sense of it.

Go to the menu bar at the top of your computer screen (way up at the top of the screen) and click on the little thing that says "view."   Then scroll down to the thing that says "view source" and click on it.  All of that stuff you see is what I now have to worry about.  Like I said, angst.  But it is starting to make sense and it's actually interesting.

Russian War  Memorial
Beyond that, the work the IIASA scientists are doing – truly in-depth studies of global warming, population, energy and other issues of planet-wide importance – needs to be written about for a wider audience.  I'll keep you posted on how it's going.

And it remains great fun going to work in a schloss everyday.

Armpit 1
So, on to scenes from our new world.  As I said, this week's theme is statues.  Misti has noticed that there are so many of them looking at you at every moment from every possible place that paranoids would have a very hard time in Vienna.

Armpit 2
But once you get past the over-the-top, gold-leafed landscape, you find that there is a lot going on in statue world.   The image at the top of the blog, "Female Sphinx with Boobs,"  is one of a group of "Sphinx with Boobs" figures lining the massive, yet understated, garden leading up to the Belvedere Palace in Vienna.  The Belvedere is in the middle of Vienna and is home to some beautiful art, including much of the well-known work of Gustav Klimt.  His work looks less gimmicky and more impressive in person.

On our way to the Belvedere we walked by a Russian memorial that included carnations and red paint poured over the inscription.  We don't know how to interpret it … honor or vandalism.

Walking down one street we came upon a doorway above which two stone men were apparently engaged in some serious discussion about their armpits.

Controlling Passion
One of the most overwhelming statue buildings in Vienna is Parliament.  Chariots, rows of gods and assorted people.  Misti read that the men taming the horses (there are four such statues) represent  men trying to keep passion bridled -- which is considered appropriate for the Parliament.

In front of Parliament is a giant fountain -- yet another one.  There are all sorts of people inhabiting the fountain, and at first glance it is just another fountain.  Then you look closer and wonder what goes on in the halls of the Austrian parliament.  I'll leave it to your imagination, but these statues are unusually intimate.  I love the hand on the shoulder.
Thinking about Passion

If your imagination fails you, stroll around to the back of the fountain, which is so close to the Parliament building it is mostly hidden.  It isn't the same couple, but you get the idea.

Needless to say, we've started to pay a little more attention to the fountains.  I'll drop some other random statues photos in … all of you are welcome to submit captions to any of them in the comments section and we'll send the winner a T-shirt.

After the cigarette 
With all of these statues, many of them hundreds of years old, one wonders what happens to them when they finally are overwhelmed by the forces of nature and erode away.   In our wanderings a couple of weeks ago, we discovered the statue graveyard.  Legend has it that at night, when Vienna is quiet, the tired, worn statues climb down from their buildings and make their way to this place.   At least that's how I translated the German.
A body in the graveyard 

Another behind the scenes place – not as cool as the statue graveyard but still pretty cool – is the place where they keep the Lipanzzer Stallions of the famous Spanish Riding School.  In the arena, these are the rock stars of dancing horses, elegant, regal … all of those things.  But go down a back street and they are a bunch of white horses in stalls next to the wheelbarrows and stacks of hay.   Worse than that, some of them, including the big stars of the past, are for sale for a mere 15,000 Euros.

They can dance 
And speaking of cigarettes, being in Austria is a bit like being in the US in the 70s and 80s in that the number of people who smoke is very high.  They smoke in all of the restaurants, although most places have no smoking sections.

The smell of cigarette smoke is common and something we haven't seen in a long time -- cigarette machines -- are pretty much everywhere.  Here is an image, just for old times sake.
On every streetcorner
We hope you all are well, and if you can get here we can provide you with a room with your own chandelier. 

Take care …
Jim, Misti and Keir

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Some of you had questions. You don’t need to log in or be a "follower." You also don’t need to make comments; if you do, they will be seen by anyone reading this blog. Jim likes comments; I like e-mail ( We both love letters, remember them? (The Dawsons, 66 Wahringer Strasse Apt. 12, 1090 Vienna, AT) Silence is also fine.

We won’t have a formal schedule for postings; they’ll simply appear at random times but at least once a week. Jim will write, too, and if I can persuade or sufficiently bribe Keir, he will offer his perspective occasionally. I neglected to credit Keir for most of the photos on these entries - he has the camera. 

We now have our Vonage phone working, so friends in Virginia can call the same as if we were still on Cypress Drive – really. Outside of Virginia, you can dial 1 and then our number: 703-573-3336. The time difference from the East Coast is six hours.

Clock in District 1 
HEIM -- Sept. 6, 2010

It’s Monday, and Jim and Keir are in their respective  second homes where they have friends and identity and a sense of purpose, to say nothing of the chance to fill their ears and mouths with nothing but English.  I, on the other hand, considered two alternatives   after they left: curl up into the fetal position and cower under the cozy Austrian comforter or go in search of ruby slippers. Had I found a pretty pair, I would have gotten to two clicks of the heels in a hurry, and then, maybe, hesitated before the third “there’s no place like….” The realization hits, yeah, home, every day. This is not a vacation.

This is … home?

The concept of home has been on my mind quite a lot lately, for obvious reasons. Since I was 20, I’ve had 18 residences. I’ve lived in three apartments, four duplexes, a triplex, a trailer (yes, in a trailer park), two basements, and five houses. Then there were the “homeless” periods of living in a VW van for more than two months and living on a bicycle for another two months. These places of varying sizes and aesthetics were, to a lesser or greater extent, home. One simple definition of home is that which is familiar.

Währinger Strasse 66

We’re fortunate to have this space. We’re not in an expat colony out in the 19th District, as are many of Keir’s classmates, or in the international U.N./International Atomic Energy Agency enclave in the 22nd. We’re in the middle of Vienna proper, the 9th District, just blocks from where Sigmund Freud treated those hysterical women who would have been happy if only they had had a penis.

The Living Room, Pre-IKEA Couch
Except for the kitchen, the apartment is spacious. Keir has a roomy bedroom with three schranks (no closets, just wardrobes), and we have a smaller bedroom,  past the bathroom and die Toilette,  which are separate rooms off the foyer. We have two large rooms, one with a non-functional fireplace and the other with a non-functional coal heater. We spend most of our time in the living room with its wonderful windows and the Ikea couch, the only furniture we bought and on which we can be our usual slovenly selves.

The place is almost fully furnished, including towels, linens, a few dishes, oriental rugs, and old, heavy wooden furniture draped in artificial flowers and greenery. Four of the rooms have chandeliers. There are no curtains; there are ceiling-to-floor-length drapes complete with sheers or lace. Each room has two sets of tall white double doors ending about 18 inches from the top of the 12-foot ceilings. With few exceptions, the yellow walls are bare, and, unfortunately, because they’re newly painted and we don't own them, must remain so.

The middle room is a kind of parlor, not exactly a word in my daily vocabulary. It contains our landlord’s important family furniture, the couch and chairs of which are a bit fragile. We use that room only for storage  (in the massive buffet and two substantial cabinets) and as a passageway from our bedroom to the living room. For one thing, the couch and chairs are too small for Jim; for another, I feel I need a lace collar and a Victorian updo before I repose there. I’m entertaining myself by googling parlor games, so when you come to visit, we can retire to the parlor, sip sherry, play amusing games by candlelight, and chuckle rather than guffaw.
The Parlor

The place is lovely, and therein lies the rub. I don’t like lovely. I like unexpected, eclectic, intriguing, eccentric.  I like rooms filled with character and contradiction. And after 20 years with Jim, I enjoy whimsy.  When I enter a home, I want to see evidence that a unique individual inhabits it, that only that person or that family with that particular history and those particular idiosyncrasies could possibly live there.

When I walked into my house on Cypress, I immediately remembered who I am (an important reminder at this age).  The first things I saw were photographs Jim and I bought in Minnesota of a farmhouse in winter, a solitary tree, and prairie grasses and a drawing of a buffalo I bought in South Dakota long ago -- reminders of places that have shaped who I am. I saw one of Reeve's mixed media pieces that I revel in every time I see it not just as art but as an amazing embodiment of his creative intellect. When I walked past the  breakfront, I could feel my mother's presence  in her hand painted plate that she always served homemade banana bread on and in her elegant Prussian tea cups, and behind them stood the portrait of Reeve as a child that Danni painted that captured his essence perfectly. If I stepped into the living room, I could see the Karhu print I craved when I was rather poor, a time when I would treat myself every few weeks to a beautiful postage stamp because I couldn't afford anything more.  I saved for that Karhu print, and it's been mine now for more than 25 years.
Our Room

And on it goes: I could look at the mixed media  piece I remember buying with my dear friend Alice on a perfect Minnesota afternoon, the watercolors I bought in a park outside of Lima, Peru, where the sunlight was different somehow. I could see the Tibetan prayer bowl Jim and I bought almost 20 years ago in an old music store in Chinatown, San Francisco, and remember the first time I heard it and how I was transported by its tone.

I was disciplined when I packed. I knew I couldn't take anything that wasn't essential. I cheated only a little.  I put in a handful of my favorite things: a few bowls; an Italian pewter  vase bought in a Cape Cod antique store (when I picked up the vase, I cradled it to my chest like a lost kitten and could not put it down); and four replica netsuke (Japanese toggles): a rabbit,  a monkey and her baby, an unknown creature waving its paw, and an ecstatic  Japanese fan dancer.

Now when I pass through the parlor, the vase and the netsuke are there to ensure friendly passage, and in the living room, I need only glance up to see my bowls nestled in the bookcase. The problem is, like me, my possessions seem out of place, swallowed up in the splendor, lost in the unfamiliar.

I’m not complaining. No, really. I’m simply perplexed. We humans spend so much time and energy transporting our bodies through space, because we are, after all, a curious species, but what we really crave after our excursions out and about is home. And for me, most of my home is still in Virginia, packed into boxes stashed away in closets and other people's attics. I expected to miss people, and of course, I do. But more than I expected, I miss my things.

The MUSE M at night from our window 

Sept. 9

The blondes are back! Since we moved to the apartment in mid-August, I’ve been watching the people below and have noticed surprisingly few towheads. But this week, with school starting, blondes ala Doris Day or Lady Gaga abound. It’s as if they were all at Aryan summer camp and now they’re home.

Monday was the first day of Austrian schools. I was watching the morning street, as usual, and noticed more parents and children than I’d seen before. This blonde trio, a mother and two daughters, each holding one of Mom’s hands, crossed the street right below me. The older girl, maybe six or seven, wore black tights on her skinny legs, a demure plaid skirt, and a cute, buttoned-up blue jacket, all offset by her pure white hair held in place by a little barrette. In her free arm, she held this large cone, the likes of which I’d never seen before. Her mom and little sister were also all dressed up. All I could imagine in the cone was flowers for the teacher,  and I wondered how many vases these lucky teachers must keep in their desks.

When Jim came home, I mentioned it to him. Because his British boss had almost forgotten to give a cone to his first-grader and panic had ensued, Jim knew what they were.

These cones, Schultute, have been a German/Austrian tradition for 200 years. On the first day of school, the children, especially first graders, are given these cones by parents and/or grandparents to sweeten what  might be a difficult day. The cones are filled with candy, school supplies, toys, chocolate, and sundry other goodies. It’s a celebration of passage.

I thought back to the crying kindergartener in Keir’s school, and wondered if perhaps a Schultute would have made her day a bit less traumatic.

It’s a charming tradition, but not one I’d like to see Americans adopt because then there would be the Cone Competition pitting parent against parent, child against child. Whose cone is the biggest, the best, the most expensive? There would be designer-label cones, Martha Stewart cones and Oprah-endorsed cones, and cones studded with Swarovski crystals.  McCones - huge and half-empty - would clutter the classroom.

American competitiveness can be an invigorating, inspiring attribute. But for parents in the last 20 years, especially in some suburbs and wealthier parts of town, the material competition engaged in by some parents has been absurd.

I remember when I was a child making boxes for Valentine’s Day. Elementary school students would decorate shoe boxes or plain brown paper bags with lace doilies and hand-cut hearts from red or pink or white construction paper, and maybe some tissue paper. The bags and boxes would be lined up on the classroom windowsill waiting for the delivery of the valentines.  I don’t remember it being competitive or parents stepping in to make their child’s receptacle just a little bit better. The boxes and bags were sweet and innocent, and at the end of the day, all were filled with simple little valentines, some homemade. That was always a good day.

So, it’s the end of the Austrians' first week of school. I hope the little ones made the transition well.