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 (naïve 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.

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