Sunday, November 14, 2010

Tales of Mundane Existence

At the moment Jim and Keir are engaged in a foraging adventure. It’s Sunday, and we have no food. Unfortunately, on Sundays in Vienna, grocery stores and most stores in general are closed, including bakeries. It’s a law.  Only two or three Billa grocery stores have special dispensation to be open on Sunday, and the one we used for the first time last week, today no longer exists.  It simply vanished. So, J and K are driving into an unfamiliar area of Vienna to find the Billa we think is actually still open.

When we came here, we learned the hard way that grocery stores close by 7:30 on weeknights and are closed on Sunday, and that most other stores, including bakeries, are also closed on Saturday or close by noon on Saturday. Most of the stores in our neighborhood, for instance, are closed either all day or half a day on Saturdays, whether they be clothing stores or Tabaks, where people buy tram tickets.  We waffled between thinking this was charming and thinking it was annoying. It was kind of how one views certain spousal traits after many years of marriage.

There is something wonderful about a town closing down one day a week. Those of us in our fifties and older remember that the U.S. was like that during our childhoods. It’s hard to imagine now in the 24/7 age, but in Pierre, S.D., and in most other American towns, Sunday was an enforced day of rest. Only the most essential people worked and commerce, except for a few restaurants, closed down.  Even the service stations, where the attendants actually pumped the gas, washed the windows, and checked the oil (really, children, it’s true), were closed.

There is no 24/7 in Vienna, except maybe the sex clubs. This has required us to change our daily habits. In Virginia, we shopped at Harris Teeter, which is open 24 hours a day and where we could find almost anything we wanted from food to housewares to shampoo to medicine.  It was not unusual for Jim to make a late-night run to the store. Here we need to actually think about when we do our shopping and how much to buy given our small refrigerator.

Last week was the first time we were desperate enough to try to shop for groceries on a Sunday.  The open Billa, previously unbeknownst to us (a friend gave us the information), was almost within walking distance, but somewhat hidden, so we were excited to find it. Given that the Viennese clearly want the grocery stores to be closed on Sunday, or they would change the law (na├»ve American that I am), we expected very few people to be there. Instead the place was mobbed and not just by ex-pats; the Viennese were everywhere.   Go figure.

Our Kangoo
Because bad habits are easily resurrected, Jim and I spent yesterday walking around Vienna knowing that we didn’t have to buy groceries because there was always tomorrow, and since Keir wouldn’t return from Munich by train until 9:30, we figured we’d be OK with a couple of tortillas and a half a hunk of cheese.

Unfortunately, the Billa we shopped at last week has vanished.  Hence, the boys are out searching for what might be the only open Billa in Vienna. They're back. Here's Jim.

We found it.  Almost in the shadow of the famous Prater Ferris Wheel from "The Third Man" movie.  The store is actually located in the Nord Bahnhof, and that part of town has a drunk or two passed out on the sidewalk.  Or, as I thought about it later, maybe they weren't drunk at all, but unconscious casualties of trying to buy groceries on a Sunday in Vienna.

Prater Ferris Wheel
Keir and I made it into the Bahnhof (all Nouns are capitalized in German) and confronted a stunning mass of people fighting for the bananas, brot, bier and anything else you could grab as the masses of humanity swept you down the aisle.  We started with a list, but quickly abandoned it and just grabbed what we could reach without being injured.

Misti may have commented in an earlier blog about how Austrians, despite having a zillion laws and regulations, aren't very good at standing in lines or otherwise making order out of something fairly straightforward, like pushing carts down aisles.  Carts and people move with no sense of direction, and based on the number of collisions, everyone seems to be invisible to everyone else.  I tried to get down one aisle, only to be blocked by a stepladder someone had left standing in the middle of a critical intersection.  The shoppers seemed stymied by it … I folded it up and leaned it against the soup.   The resulting surge swept me toward the baked goods.  Okay, not quite.

But at least the effort to get out of the way provided the answer to a puzzle I've had on other shopping outings.  Shopping carts here go forward and back, like in the States, but they also go sideways.  It takes some getting used to.  But today, as I quickly moved left, then right, dodging other carts and Austrian shoppers, I realized why the carts are designed as they are.   It's a real-life video game.

I'm exaggerating, but only slightly.  It is the rudest, most aggressive shopping one can imagine.  As Keir and I were leaving, we noticed a phalanx of security guards at the front door.  A crowd had gathered in the main terminal of the Bahnhof, all trying to push into the Billa.  As there was not room in the Billa for even one more shopper, the guards were holding the mob at bay.  It was a confrontation.

So much for a Sunday trip to the store to grab a carton of Milch.  The Austrian Parliament needs to review the Sunday closing law in order to maintain the social order.

Christmas Cloud
And as Misti began this by talking about the Mundane Existence of Vienna, I'll provide you with what passes for mundane in this place.  Keir was just off to Munich for a volleyball tournament.  While he was gone, we had two boys from Zurich stay with us so they could play in the soccer tournament here.  The school's cross country team went to London – where they still are, and the girl's soccer team is in Cairo.  Another weekend of sports at the school.  Yawn.

Our Street with Blue Clouds
Next week Keir is going to take a little jaunt over to Portugal to do some Habitat for Humanity work.  The girls he hangs around with a lot advised him not to spend his birthday money on clothes here in Vienna because they are, like, soooooo much cheaper in Portugal.  Like, wow.  How do they know that?

As Keir got mad when I pulled out my camera in the Billa, the pictures this week will be of other things.

This image is one of the blue Christmas clouds that now hang over our street.

Stairs 41 to 52/our door
Many, many streets are adorned with stunning Christmas decorations … we'll do a nighttime tour in a few weeks.  One pedestrian arcade in the First District has giant chandeliers hanging high over the people … we haven't seen them at night yet.

The brown doorway at the top of the stairs is our apartment (52 steps up from the entrance). 

We're on the third floor 
Our building is undergoing a year-long outside renovation, so it is encased in scaffolding and green netting.   That is common in a city filled with old buildings.  One of the things they are doing to our building is adding an elevator.  It will go up the outside in the back courtyard and watching it being built … by two guys with trowels and cinderblocks … is both fascinating and disconcerting. We definitely won't be the first to use it.

 The netting, when on regular buildings, is green or white.  But when it is on historic buildings, it contains accurate images of the buildings being covered.  
What's real?

The photo here is of the Stephansdom … the big famous cathedral in District One.  Almost everything you see in this photo is actually a sort of silkscreen of the building hanging in front of the actual building while they fix the bricks.

Kino in English
As we live in a town where everything is historic, here is a shot of the Artis Kino, the movie theater where all films are shown "OV" – which means original version, which means in English.   The theater is a maze of staircases to little theater rooms that are more like screening rooms.  It isn't very big, but it is easy to get lost inside.

And as we must include some art, here is a statue of a very casual guy hanging around over a doorway, contemplating the mundane nature of his existence.

The guy in the two frames at the top is art, and if you drop a couple of Euros in his coin box, he'll pose.  If you don't, he puts his hands in front of his face. Just another human trying to make a living.

Misti again.  While the boys' trip to the Billa was the most exciting thing to happen all week, we actually had a second thrill, again based on the most mundane of things. Last weekend we had headed out for Keir's birthday celebration (and, yes, we do know that his birthday is Nov. 4, the day I wrote the last blog, not Nov. 5, when it was posted - we're not slipping that badly).  His friends have been giving him grief about looking "too American" so we gave him some money, took him to the large shopping district, and let him go in search of European styles. We had planned to go from there to the Prater ferris wheel (above), but when we caught up with Keir, he had run into two girls (the afore-mentioned) and decided that hanging out with them was preferable to a one-of-a-kind ferris wheel ride with his parents.

Jim and I went home, and although we have three sets of keys, we quickly realized that all three were inside the locked apartment. I ran down the street to the key shop, but it was Saturday afternoon, so it was closed, of course. I went to the apartment of the man we consider the superintendent, and I met the person I assume is his wife, who doesn't speak a word of English. I explained in German that we had a serious problem and where the keys were and she looked very concerned, but no, her husband didn't have a key. I went into the Italian restaurant downstairs and, unfortunately, neither of the waiters we know best were there, but I finally met the owner, a dapper looking man from Jordan who runs an Italian restaurant in Vienna. All anyone could tell us was that it would cost a couple hundred euros to have a locksmith come to the place. Everyone was sweet and tried to be helpful.

Then, we looked up. Our apartment building is surrounded by scaffolding (see above), and although we always lock our windows (two sets of locks each, so double locked; nine sets in all), it was worth a try. We live on what we call the third floor, what Austrians call the second floor.  Jim went up on this clearly not OSHA-approved scaffolding, moving ladders, inching along narrow boards, and jumping over gaps, while the restaurant owner and I tried to see him through the green netting.  By leaning precariously across open air Jim was able to check the windows. One of the nine wasn't tightly locked, so he pushed on it, it opened, and he dove headfirst through the window. Thank you, Tae Kwon Do! 

The upshot of this (other than our paying more attention to keys) is that I ran into the superintendent's wife a day or two later. She's a head shorter than I am, and probably years younger. I tried to explain to her in German how we had solved our problem, and she said again how outrageously expensive locksmiths are ("Zwei hundert. Hundert. Hundert.") And then, she grabbed me by the shoulders and almost hugged me! It was so unexpected. So dear.

No matter where you live, most of life comes down to the mundane. The search for food, access to shelter, and human contact, in any language.

Friday, November 5, 2010

In Search of Vincent

Van Gogh

Today our baby, Keir, turns 17.  How in the world did that happen?

We’re late with the blog because we were busy exploring our extended neighborhood – most of central Europe. Keir had last week plus this Monday off school (two Austrian holidays and school break), so we headed via Kangoo to Arles, France, to finally visit Reeve, Melanie and Ocean.

Given that the French had been striking and gas was purportedly rare, and many people (including ourselves) imagined us stuck at the border with an empty tank and nowhere to go, and that Keir woke up Saturday, the day we were to leave, with a nasty stomach disorder, the beginning wasn’t auspicious. 

Snow in the Italian Alps
But on Monday, our intrepid spirits prevailed (actually, we were just desperate to get out of town) and we headed south. The first day we drove in depressing wind and rain for the entire day, but the blurry Austrian scenery was nonetheless impressive, particularly the deepening forests. The real excitement began in the Alps in northern Italy. The rain changed to snow. 

Now, we know snow. I grew up in South Dakota, land of howling blizzards and ice-encrusted cattle and buffalo. In my early 20s, I lived in Wisconsin, which has slightly wimpier winters, but when a VW dune buggy and bicycles are all you own, and public transit is minimal, a Wisconsin winter takes on a very personal dimension.   Then Jim and I spent 20 years in Minnesota (land of 10,000 snowflakes per nanosecond per inch for, oh, nine months out of the year) until we moved to Virginia, civilized environs in which snow makes an occasional grand entrance and graciously vanishes before one can tire of it. It’s like the belle of the ball leaving the gala before her armpits are sweaty and her tresses come undone.  We love Virginia winters.

The Kangoo Challenge
This Alpine snowfall was mesmerizing, enthralling, gorgeous. That is, for Keir and me. For the driver, who was testing out the performance of this used Kangoo, the word would be harrowing.

In Vienna, there is a rule. Surprise. Snow tires are required by law to be put on vehicles no later than November 1. Of course, we would never do anything before a deadline and nothing warned us of imminent snow, at least not in English. The mountain roads were curvy, slushy, slippery and down to one lane populated by an astonishing number of trucks.  Relief was found in the many tunnels, in which Jim could resume normal breathing, if only momentarily, and Keir could indulge his love of tunnel photography.

A Kangoo like ours 
We survived the snowstorm and stopped for the night in Padua, filled with new respect for this un-American-looking French car of ours.

Then, on to France. Driving through Italy to France on this route is defined by Ts: trucks and tunnels, terror and thrill. Hundreds of trucks, which we assumed were heading to the harbor in Marseilles, accompanied us. We stopped counting tunnels when we got to 40. Few things attest to the marriage of human ingenuity and muscularity more clearly than mountain tunnels.  The trust we have in this union as we allow ourselves to be deep inside a mountain that could crush us beyond any remnants of existence is stunning, a peculiar act of faith in our fellow humans.
TomTom and a Tunnel

Once in France, where luckily gas was abundant, we began driving on elevated roads to the left of which we could see the glorious Mediterranean.  The sun was radiant, the wind merciless.  Keir’s pictures show you all you need to know.

Driving the Mediterranean Coast
After all that dramatic scenery, the drive to Arles through land that looked more like the Midwest, except for the wispy trees and lacey foliage (think Impressionist painters) was relatively calm.

After 14 hours total, we arrived in Arles. Nothing in the U.S. resembles Arles, which is in some ways the antithesis of Vienna – dirty, down-to-earth, colorful, irrational, diverse, dark, tattered, lively, subversive. 

Misti and Keir walk to the Hotel du Musee
Arles is on the Rhone River, and its infamous mistral was blowing hard the first day we were there trying to navigate the narrow streets with their confusing signage. It was bitter cold, and we couldn’t get to our hotel from where we were (we gave Reeve and Melanie a break for two nights), so we parked by the ruins of the Roman coliseum and toted our luggage through a maze of dark streets until we reached Hotel du Musee, where the proprietor, frazzled and disorganized, spoke no English.

The four days we were in Arles, we walked miles along narrow streets virtually unchanged for centuries. If there is one thing Americans should learn from Europeans it is the joy of walking. Everyone walks, no one is obese, even those who are disabled walk with canes and crutches. At first, I thought there were more people with disabilities in Europe, but then I realized, that no matter the age or the disability, the people are out walking in whatever manner they can manage. 

Arles is a Roman town, and Reeve and Melanie’s centuries-old home is just around the corner from the ruins of a Roman bath, the Thermae of Constantine, built in the fourth century. One can only imagine the intrigue and romance and scheming and lust that must have played out within that ancient structure. Beneath the town, you can walk in the near-dark, dank and musty, and see the remains of Roman walls.  Julius Caesar himself may have walked there.
Arles street

This is a place famous for bullfights, and both Hemingway and Picasso satisfied at least some of their bloodlust at the Arles arena, first built in Roman times. I’m no fan of bullfights, at least I don’t think so having never actually seen one, but the strange exoticness of that singular violence as entertainment harks back through hundreds of years. What is it that that pageantry and cruelty sparks in otherwise normal people? 

Where bullfights still happen
My mother loved animals and I remember her nursing our tomcat’s disgusting head wounds, resulting from nights out prowling, and feeding with an eyedropper every abandoned bird I ever brought home. She was a force to be dealt with under whose supervision that hunter/tomcat, our cocker spaniel, and our house rabbit all co-existed peacefully in the family room and kitchen.  One of my favorite photos is of that cat lying on a kitchen chair right next to the bunny. The cat does not look happy.  According to my dad, this woman who could subdue the murderous instincts of that tom while in the house with easy prey thoroughly enjoyed the bullfight she saw in Spain. The men thought my mother, tiny and pretty, would be too delicate for the gore. She wasn’t.

Another street 
Given the choice, death to a single animal pitted against a single man, who also risks death, is certainly a preferable way to play out the violent nature of humans to planting indiscriminate car bombs in Baghdad. I suspect that watching the spectacle of matador versus bull brings death into focus.  Perhaps it’s cathartic; at least it’s safe, for everyone other than those in the ring. And, maybe, just maybe, a bullfight is in my future (but I’d better hurry because they’ve just been banned in Spain), so instead of imagining these things, I, too, will test my true instincts, might discover my own dark bloodlust.

St. Trophime
The town square, just outside the entrance to the Roman crypts, is faced by the Church of St. Trophime, built on the site of a fifth century basilica; the current church was begun in the twelfth century. Its statues, on one side a group of the “elect” heading to paradise, on the other the naked damned going to hell, are a bit less playful than many of Vienna’s statues. The interior is cathedral-like but spare. 

Leaving the church and standing in that square, a difference becomes evident. In Vienna, the imagination is ordered, constrained.  Beauty is codified. The statuary, the fountains, the gardens, the architecture, the music (think Schoenberg’s 12-tone row as well as Mozart symphonies) are structured, controlled.  The passion finds expression in music, in opera, but it needs corners and boxes, rules, and palatial surroundings. Even Viennese Sigmund Freud’s intent was to order the mysterious human psyche.
Keir photographing the Rhone

In Arles, the accordion and tambourine players in the town square enliven the very air. They just play. The skateboarders and bikers dare the cobblestones to trip them up, the smokers engage in simple conversation during lengthy lunch breaks, women in rags hunched in corners on the steps of the church beg, protesters holding pictures of Che Guevara and pounding drums pour through the narrow streets. Unruly humanity.

Marching with Che
Here’s an irony. The Viennese of structure and control enthusiastically welcomed Hitler in 1938, a reality for which the city only apologized in the 1990s, and the darkest passions were unleashed. Order was lost, humanity usurped by demonic impulses.

Bullfight? Holocaust?

Arles, too, has its dark side, a small aspect of which concerned Vincent Van Gogh, who was institutionalized there after he cut off his ear. Some posit he mutilated himself as a gesture to the object of his respect, artist Paul Gaugin, mimicking the bullfight tradition of presenting the vanquished bull’s ear to a special person in the stands.  Or maybe he just had a bad day.  Whatever the reason, the Arlesians tricked him into an institution, a place still standing and quite lovely, where he continued to paint.
The painting, the place

Another universal irony. Arles had not appreciated Van Gogh in his time, but after his importance was secured for all of posterity, it embraced all things Van Gogh. I’m reminded of Sinclair Lewis’ novel “Main Street,” a thinly disguised and scathing critique of Lewis’ hometown, Sauk Centre, Minnesota. Initially, he was castigated for embarrassing his hometown; the book was even banned in at least one Minnesota town. But, later and still today, the town embraced him. I’m sure in both cases the change in heart had nothing to do with tourist dollars….
Van Gogh and his Cafe 

All of this, of course, is impression, conjecture and presupposition, so let me tell you something I absolutely know to be true: My grandson, Ocean Benjamin Schumacher, is the most adorable almost-seven-month-old baby on the planet. I know that many of you have not yet become grandparents and some of you never will, so I won’t bore you with the details of his huge, inquisitive blue eyes or the perfect slant of his eyebrows, or of the sweet, sweet, sweetness that emanates from his smile, or his adorable bottom, or the beauty of seeing him nestled against his gentle mama nursing contentedly. Aren’t you glad I spared you?

Reeve and Ocean

At 57, it’s thrilling to experience something new, and becoming a grandmother for the first time when Colin was born more than a year ago, was more profound an experience than I ever anticipated. On the days when grandbabies are born, nothing, nothing, matters more than their entrance into our lives.

It’s impossible to truly explain to the uninitiated; it’s like trying to explain sexual climax to a child. I remember the sex book I used to explain intercourse to Reeve when he was quite young. It featured charming frontal drawings of a man with a paunch and a penis and a woman with slightly-sagging breasts and pubic hair, almost cartoon-like. Orgasm was described something like this: After a lot of wiggling together, it’s like being tickled with a feather and then you sneeze. Hmm.

Anyway, the joy of being a grandmother is equally inexpressible.

All of us in the house from the 1600s
Reeve and Melanie are adjusting to life in a town where neither knows anyone, but fortunately, they’re only about an hour from Marseilles, where much of Melanie’s family lives, and they are both people who make friends easily.

Reeve might already be known as the crazy American artist; to promote an opening in their art gallery, he walked on stilts in the town square, and another time, he performed his songs (he has an amazing way with lyrics and melody) in the square with his guitar case, I think, left open for donations. Because so much of his current work involves feathers, he has a relationship with one of the local bar owners, who serves many of the hunters in the area. Recently he spent more than two hours plucking freshly-killed ducks for the guy so that he could keep the feathers.

His current exhibition – sculptures of feather boats – is exquisite. Feathers have been a motif in his life. My mother and grandmother taught me the names of birds and I routinely collected feathers and bird nests as a child. Reeve and I always collected feathers on our walks, especially along Minnehaha Creek, and after he left home for college and even later, he and I would often include a feather in our letters.
Coral King 

One of my favorite feathers is a great blue heron feather that Reeve retrieved for me at the Everglades. It was inside the fence where the alligators were hiding, and since I’m a coward and generally obey the rules, it was Reeve who crossed the fence, dashed to the edge of the water, and returned with the treasure.

When they had their art opening, Melanie’s videos of boats in the Marseilles harbor (Melanie is a video artist) was running in the “cave,” what counts as a cellar in Arles, a musician friend was creating the music, and as the people walked among the boats, the boats moved in response to their movements and breath and cast mysterious shadows.

Here’s my favorite constructed of feathers, bones and petrified coral as the keel.

Reeve and Melanie live here
We had to leave Arles much sooner than we would have liked, but work and school beckoned, and Reeve and Melanie, who had had many visitors in recent weeks, were ready to be alone.

We decided to drive back the northern route through France, Switzerland, and Germany. The trip was less exciting in a visceral way, but the beauty of the countryside was breathtaking. And the sunset high in the Alps with its complicated layers of cloud types and golden hue was perhaps the most spectacular I’ve ever seen. After two days, we drove back into Vienna, mostly happy to be back on the eastern side of things.
Heading home via the Alps

This weekend, we hope to continue our hidden tour of Vienna, but our main objective will be to celebrate Keir’s birthday, hopefully in a uniquely Viennese way. I doubt it will involve stilts.