Sunday, September 5, 2010

Wednesday, Aug. 25, 2010


Four weeks ago today, the three of us were making our way from the Vienna airport to a small town called Mödling, where we were to begin our Austrian adventure. Until then our impressions had been primarily about the Austrian airlines color scheme. When we boarded the airplane at Dulles, we were struck by how different it was from the Air Canada plane we had flown in to France in the spring. That airplane was spacious, modern, sleek, sophisticated – very, well, Canadian/American. This airplane was small, tattered, cramped, and, most disorienting of all, equipped with a color scheme that Jim said looked almost, stress on almost, Jamaican:  strange turquoise/teal seats with off-orange and off-yellow headrests. Add to that the flight attendants' uniforms of bright red jackets, skirts, and vests AND bright red stockings and red shoes (Yikes!) and you have a gruesome multi-color pileup. The red was offset only by a thin, barely powder blue scarf, and on some women, a hint of a white blouse. My retinas will never be the same.

That was probably the moment we realized we were heading to environs more Eastern than Western European. Both Jim and I were in East Germany years ago – Jim while a junior high student in 1962 and I as a college student in 1973. Among the impressions we share was that traveling from the west to the east (and especially true riding the subway from West Berlin to East Berlin) was like viewing the “Wizard of Oz” in reverse – Technicolor to black and white. (Let me digress. Although I watched the “Wizard of Oz” every year once a year because it was a holiday event - old people, remember those days when a movie on TV was an EVENT? – I didn't realize the movie changed color until I was a teenager and my parents bought our first color TV.  I was dumbfounded. Perhaps that's where my distrust of technology began.) The primary palette of East Germany was shades of gray – drab, dirty buildings, cars, buses, clothes, sky – even the people and the food (liver, beef tongue) seemed gray. So, maybe those post-war years of Soviet occupation suppressed the Austrians' sense of color, and like the newly converted who often become misguided zealots, the newly-unrestrained airline designers became misguided color fanatics.

“Sie haben enorme Menge Gepäck”

When we arrived, we were met by an engaging man, a master of diplomacy. It was very early in the morning and he had been expecting one passenger with reasonable luggage. Instead, a haggard trio encumbered with multiple suitcases and backpacks appeared. He quickly took charge, made the necessary phone calls, and within an hour we were on our way via a van and a taxi (both Mercedes, Keir was quick to note) driving through the southern Vienna countryside, which is surprisingly flat and reminiscent of western Minnesota. On the way, we learned something of his personal history and, of course, it had been shaped by the tragedy of World War II.  Welcome to Europe.

Mödling (The pronunciation is somewhere between ‘Mooooodling’ and ‘Murrrdling”)

The B & B was lovely, especially for Keir, who had his own suite, and the proprietress, Frau Shimek, a woman about our age, was warm and charming. She was one of my first realizations of how much is lost if you don't share a language. Although her English was passable, when we heard her speak to her adult daughter and friends in German, they exploded in laughter. No doubt she is a hilarious woman, but that aspect of her was lost to us. There was the morning, though, when Jim went down to pay for yet another day of Internet, and she greeted him wearing only a blouse and underpants. She simply said, "Ach, no trousers," and went about getting him what he needed.

We spent our time in Mödling in the town square, an active place any time any day, where we noticed a persistent and disturbing theme of broken bones. Given Jim and Keir's history, we're especially sensitive to casts, and there were many encasing broken arms, elbows, wrists, ankles, feet and legs on people of both genders and all ages. Being a cast expert, Jim was intrigued by how thrown-together many seemed. There were no neon-colored, waterproof synthetic casts of the ilk both Jim and Keir have had; instead, basic plaster wrapped in gauze predominated, definitely no-frills casting. We have no idea why all of those bones shattered (calcium deficiency? skateboarding on cobblestones? a gulag?), but we are careful to look both ways every time we cross a street.

Modling also presented us with another visual treat – many of the women, especially middle-aged and older, dye their hair various shades of blue, pink, and orange. If you've seen the German movie "Run Lola Run" you have an idea of the unnatural hue. One older woman had beautiful white hair cut in a stylish bob; a bottom layer of hair dyed jet black peaked out from underneath. Striking.

As I mentioned to some of you earlier, the town square is where we discovered that Thursday night is the night to dress to the nines and go to the outdoor cafes and theaters. One night the entertainment included street theater at which we saw our first Austrian in a Nazi uniform pushing a Jewish man in a wheelchair surrounded by men, women and children in 1940s-era clothing. Unfortunately, we didn't understand the dialogue, but we assumed the best and tried to close our gaping mouths as quickly as possible.

While at Mödling, we became aware of how intractable jet lag can be – it took Jim and me a full week to recover. During that time, Jim began work at the institute in Laxenberg, a much smaller town. Eventually Keir and I took a bus to visit him. Here’s where adjectives fail. You get off the bus, turn a corner, and are knocked senseless by a huge yellow palace and across the cobblestone courtyard, a postcard chapel. Spectacular, awesome, breathtaking, splendid, picturesque, pick one. Then a nun in full habit rides by on a bicycle, and there's no doubt you're not in Kansas any more.

Jim's office is actually in an annex next to the schloss. The palace itself is only partially restored from the days when the Soviet army occupied and trashed it. In one hallway hang photographs of what it looked like when the Soviets left in 1955 – debris and rubble everywhere, previously elegant rooms abused as stables. The place had been reduced to a landfill. One attitude that becomes quickly evident here is how much the Austrians dislike the Russians (and the Germans and the Turks). When you see those photographs, you get an inkling of why.

A quarter of the palace.
The chapel.
We've only explored a portion of the palace, but Jim and I mounted this incredibly steep, narrow, spiral staircase up to the upper floors, where graduate students from around the world were hunched over computers in nooks and crannies. The rooms have large windows affording views onto the acres of grounds and woods behind the palace; the ceilings have been restored with delicate pastoral frescoes everywhere. It's impossible to be in the complex and not imagine palace intrigue and the swishing of silk, brocade and lace.

Jim's work is going well, but once again he's amazed by the contradiction found in many scientific workplaces. Here are all these brilliant scientists (more than 400 from around the world) devising sophisticated computer models of complex problems regarding climate change, population growth, and energy, and yet the computer system Jim is working on is a nightmare, a monster. Despite my techno-ignorance, even I can understand when Jim describes a website that contains 67 gigabytes of information in contrast to most scientific websites, which top out at 1 or 2 gigabytes. And once again, scientists are busy protecting turf rather than acting as a unified body in need of certain rules of engagement with regard to the web. Jim is encouraging his slightly worn-down peers not to give up the fight against entrenched, nay-saying bureaucrats and self-and only self-promoting scientists. He has visions of a rational, creative and impressive web presence. Mostly, he'd just like to write, and perhaps in the foreseeable future, that is what he'll do.


The Laxenberg castle is beautiful, but downtown Vienna is that beauty to the nth degree. This place is gorgeous. In the First District, the equivalent to the mall in D.C. or certain blocks of Manhattan in New York, everywhere your eyes focus there is something spectacular to behold. Turn a corner and there's another elegant building or yet another stunning church.  Look up and a curly-haired Grecian god looks down at you from the most inconspicuous of corners. You get your bearings based on a variety of spires and steeples; trying to remember which church is which is essential to knowing where you are (and I don't mean that metaphysically).

We haven't yet done the touristy things of taking carriage rides, cruising down the Danube and actually learning about the Hofburg Palace, Empress Sissi, and the Lipizzaner stallions. We're saving that for fall when fewer tourists crowd the streets and the weather is more conducive.

Of course, not all is sublime. Driving through a seedier part of the city, Keir remarked on the urban planning scheme: strip club, strip club, porno shop, erotic movie theater, sex toy boutique, church, bar, bar, bar, church, strip club. He figured that men go to the sex shops, feel bad, go to confession, say their Hail Marys, feel better, go drink, walk by the church on their way back to the porno shops, and the cycle resumes.


One of the places I love best is the back porch at home on Cypress Drive. I sit there surrounded by bamboo and trees, and I feel alone and comfortable. I can spend hours not seeing, hearing, or talking to another person and no one sees me. Except for the faint hum of the beltway, I could be in the countryside.

View from one window.
My geography here is so different. I am both voyeur and voyeured.  We live in this magnificent apartment with 12-foot ceilings, chandeliers and a parquet floor two floors above an Italian restaurant and across the street from the Café Weimar. Währingerstrasse, right below the windows, is a main thoroughfare crowded with pedestrians, cars, trams, and buses. I stand at the windows all hours of the day and, unfortunately, night, and I watch people, hundreds of people.  And as I stand at or sometimes lean out of my window (think Oliver or Julie Andrews sans music), I'm aware that there are apartment windows all around me, and I, too, might be providing another voyeur a glimpse of an oh-so-mysterious life.

View from another window.
And, oddly, I love it. I hear snatches of conversation floating up from the restaurants below, bits of piano music wafting up from the café, strange electronic beats pulsing out of the intriguing little artists community kitty corner. The last two nights I've heard the plaintive cries of a colicky baby across the street. I've seen little dramas play out such as the other day when a spastic young man suddenly leapt out from an alcove in front of an older woman on the sidewalk seemingly accosting her.  I watched with concern trying to remember the emergency number here (133) until it became apparent that they knew each other. They walked together around the corner, an odd couple. I watch the trams fly by and see fragments of passengers and wonder if I've seen any of these people before, maybe yesterday, or if I've met them, or if according to the Kevin Bacon game, I'm connected to them through the six degrees of separation phenomenon.


Most of all, I see legs. Gorgeous, muscular, shapely women's legs. Women here wear skirts and dresses more than women in the U.S. do.  All styles of skirts and dresses, from classic to flirty to Bohemian, and most just graze the knee; bare calves paired with high heels or stylish flats are everywhere.  Women ride bicycles in dresses, and look adorable. Whether it's from all the walking (no elevators in old buildings) or the squatting at bidets, the women, especially the middle-aged women have strong, sexy legs.  Mrs. Robinson.  I am obsessed.

I can't remember when I last wore a dress or skirt that revealed the complete lower half of my legs. I wore a calf-length skirt a few months back and Keir didn't know who I was. Of course, these legs I'm captivated by can't be just limbs but symbols. They raise all the usual questions for me about women and men. I know better, but I still cling to the notion that men love women for their brains. OK, men, pick yourselves up from the floor. I still wrestle with the idea that women who flaunt their goods are somehow betraying the cause by promoting their sexuality over their other qualities.  I see women staggering on stilettos or navigating puddles in high-heeled mules and I know why there's never been an American woman president.   Shouldn't a leader with the power to wage war have enough sense to wear orthopedically correct shoes? I stand in front of a classroom at NOVA marveling at all the Latina and sometimes European cleavage (rarely Asian) confronting me and wonder how that male Muslim from Saudi Arabia can possibly learn his irregular verbs. Yet, I react with revulsion to pictures of Chinese women in sexless little Mao leisure suits.

Sadly, I remain as confused as when I was 18. I do hope, however, that skirts are in my future. So does Jimmy Lee.



As most of my friends of similar age know, at this age, words can become problematic. They come out backwards or misplaced or are simply absent. There are those moments when your spouse and children look at you with an eyebrow raised, quizzical, and start searching E-Bay for ice floe. Maybe it's worse because of lack of sleep (I love the activity on the street below except when it keeps me awake much of the night), but at the same time as I'm trying to add words, albeit in German, to my vocabulary, I'm losing a few good English ones.

Fortunately, this degeneration is harmless as long as it isn't taking place in an air traffic control tower or during neurosurgery. Anyway, there's this old brick building across the street and I've looked at the block-lettered sign every day: Technologisches Gewerber Muse  M.  It was only last night that it dawned on me, that it isn’t a message about inspiration; the u is missing.  What a letdown. Nonetheless, I still look at the word and hope they never repair the sign.

Keir and friends.

Keir's School

Today is Keir's second day at school, and I expect him to come home delighted and daunted after math, physics, history, and art. The school is small (800 or so students) and houses grades K through 12, though in different sections. Keir came home yesterday and described a kindergartener in the hallway crying for mommy; a high school student and a middle school student were comforting her. Later, when he boarded the bus, he had to wait as the kindergarteners and first-graders navigated the giant stairs to the giant bus. I hadn't thought about what a different flavor schools of all the grades have compared to those that are segregated into elementary or middle or high schools. I was glad to see the tenderness Keir expressed for the little ones – yet another aspect of education.

Surprisingly, Keir has met students he knows or who know his friends. One classmate is a former teammate on one of Keir's baseball teams; another knows many of the people he knows at Woodson High School. His German teacher is a German native, but she used to live in Fairfax. Several people have Minnesota connections: the director recently moved here from St. Paul, the counselor grew up in Little Falls, one of the first students Keir met grew up in Edina.

On orientation day, we met a number of interesting parents. My favorite was a woman from Australia who married an Italian, who works for Colgate-Palmolive. When they married, she naively and romantically (are they the same thing?) told him, "Wherever you are is home." He said, "Whoopee!" and promptly hauled her off to a variety of exotic locales including Papua, New Guinea (where their bus driver had a conversation with some locals in feathers and war paint and armed with bows and arrows who were crossing the road; they were on their way to exact revenge on another tribe); Argentina, where the economy collapsed and people rioted; Viet Nam, where she contracted dengue fever (no cure, but the first time you get it, you usually survive) and later had to have rabies shots after being bitten by a dog. I've forgotten the other places, but now she's in Slovenia, living a quiet life in the woods painting pictures of brightly colored flowers to offset the gloom of the still-developing country.  She was down-to-earth, funny, and a bit bemused at the unexpected way her life turned out.  Because of their situation, her daughter, a tenth-grader, will be living in Vienna with friends, but the parents will be more than 3 hours away in Slovenia.

The school is well guarded, though you can tell the administrators try to be understated. There is a guardhouse and a police presence and gates and barbed wire. Some of the students are diplomats' kids, so extra caution is apparently justified.

The never-done-that-before-despite-having-been-parents-for-30-years moment was signing a form allowing the school to give Keir potassium iodide in the event of a nuclear accident. Given the news that the wildfires in Russia are burning some of the radioactive forests around Chernobyl, hence radioactive smoke is in the atmosphere, maybe I should be baking potassium iodide brownies for an after-school snack.

Bureaucrats (Everything takes two weeks)

Poor Jim has been spending hours and hours dealing with the through-the-looking-glass Austrian bureaucracy. Everything is a process requiring multiple office visits and an endless array of official stamps. Since everything is in Jim's name (rarely does my name get included), he's the chosen one, which is fortunate because unlike me, he doesn't have a temper.

Complicating things is the fact that the economy here is primarily a cash economy, in part because of the use of schwartzgeld to avoid taxes. We had to reimburse the Institute for fronting us the money we needed to rent our place, and we had to do it in cash.  I can't remember a time in the U.S. when I was carrying the equivalent of about $5,300 in my purse. Also, no one accepts checks – they don't even exist - and fewer places than in the U.S. accept credit cards. When cash isn't used, direct transfers between accounts are made. We now have what we think is a bank debit card, but we're not sure how to use it. Also due to bureaucracy, we're still waiting for our boxes from the U.S., which shipped five weeks ago and are in Vienna but are wending their way, slowly, through customs.

None of our experiences compares with that of Jim's British boss, Iain.  When his son was born four or five years ago, he needed to get his son's birth certificate. First, he had to present his marriage license, which was in Spanish since he's married to a Venezuelan, and the officials wouldn't deal with him until he had the document translated into German. When he went back, the woman told him the middle name he had given his son was unacceptable because it didn't exist in the Austrian book of names. At that point, this mild-mannered Brit screamed at her in both English and German, telling her that it was none of her bloody business what he named his son. She relented. Crazy.


When I was packing, I was in a quandary about which books to take – my old favorites to re-read or the latest books on my shelf; books that I hadn't read yet and had always wanted to or books I hadn't read yet and felt guilty about; fiction or nonfiction; poetry or prose. I don't know what my final choices were since the boxes haven't arrived and toward the end I was stuffing any book within reach into any space I could find. One I'm pretty sure I left behind is one I wish I had now: "Amusing Ourselves to Death" by Neil Postman, a social critic in the 1980s examining the effects of electronic entertainment on our minds and communities.

I thought of it because we are essentially without electronic amusement. When we were on the compound in Laxenberg, we watched hours of BBC and CNN World because we were so out-of-touch and hungry for English. Then when we came here, one of Jim's colleagues gave Keir a bunch of DVDs of American TV shows, many of which we watched together on the laptop. But, because we don't have a phone yet and no friends to call, and we don't have internet, and this TV has only German programs, and the radio stations play mostly old American pop songs (usually in English but occasionally translated into German – you haven't lived until you've heard "Yummy, Yummy, Yummy, I've Got Love in My Tummy" in German) – we've rediscovered the joys of quietness.

Last Thursday Keir found out that he needed to read as much of "Crime and Punishment" as possible before school started, so from Friday through Monday, he spent hours reading it, and when he wasn't, I was.  For several hours each day now, each of us will be reading, often in the same room. No one is surfing the Internet, cheering on Rachel Maddow, blowing up Nazi zombies on X-Box, screaming at politicians on TV, checking Facebook or begging Garrison Keillor to please stop singing. When we're not reading, we're often walking through the neighborhood together.  It feels so ------ civilized. The trick, of course, will be to maintain this sensibility after our boxes arrive and Internet and all its noise becomes available.


  1. We are so happy that the blog is up and running so that we can share in all of your adventures across the pond. We miss you guys.

    Erin, Will, and Colin

  2. Misti, I am so glad that you are such an evocative and talented blogger. I laughed so hard at the thought of Yummy, yummy . . . in German. Perry and I both look forward to the news from Vienna with each posting. No extraordinary news from HRA. From what I read in the Post, Vienna is much cooler and grayer and wetter that it is here. Looking forward to your next post.