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.

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