Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Merry Mischmasch

Nov. 28, 2010

It’s been more than two weeks since we’ve written, and we have no excuse other than laziness and lack of focus, so today’s installment will be a hodgepodge. By the way, according to the Internet, the English word hodgepodge is a descendant of the French word hochepot, meaning a stew, and the German word for  hodgepodge is mischmasch, which in English is, of course, mishmash, but agreement on its derivation is hard to come by. Incidentally, there is one Chad Mishmash in the U.S., just in case you need to know.

I think it’s time that I do two things: stop drinking coffee (fifth cup today) and download a Mac program for the undisciplined called “Freedom,” a program by which you can block Internet access for a certain amount of time. We tried it out on Keir’s computer yesterday, and he was thrilled when he realized he was locked out of the Internet  (including e-mail, Facebook and YouTube) for three hours….

[NOTE FROM JIM – Misti doesn't claim to be a visual person, and the first half of this blog is evidence of that.  Unless you want to see pictures of Keir sick in bed, or Misti drinking coffee, there isn't much to illustrate.  Thus, I'm going to randomly insert pictures we've taken over the past couple of weeks – sort of a visual hodgepodge, or mishmash. The top image is of Christmas bears we saw in a window.]

Rathaus Christmas Market 

Dec. 1

It’s now days later, and Keir is in bed sick with the flu, missing school for the second day; I have a nasty cold, and Jim is working at home because the washing machine pipe leaked through to the ceiling of the apartment below, which required a visit from the landlady and plumber, and I’m in no shape to meet anyone. Then the window repairmen came to fix the shattered glass in the windows facing the shaft onto which both the foyer and kitchen face (similar to our light well at home but deep and ugly) because the renovators have been tossing bricks and debris down the shaft, which have been bouncing off the scaffolding and into the glass. It’s been exciting listening to the crashing and shattering of who knows what all, but we’re glad we’re only renting. It was enjoyable seeing our landlady for the first time since August, even if it was before 8 a.m. She’s a defense attorney probably in her fifties, and she is both serious and charming.

Thursday was Thanksgiving, but, obviously, only for Americans.  I can’t remember how long it’s been since our entire immediate family was together for Thanksgiving, but this is the first year in which we celebrated it in four countries.

IIASA Schloss 

Reeve and family were in Paris, but I doubt they had turkey – they probably had foie gras instead; Keir had a wonderful traditional turkey dinner in a restaurant in Braga, Portugal; Dylan, Erin and family feasted together in Maryland; and we enjoyed turkey with all the trimmings, including pumpkin and apple pie, at IIASA, Jim’s workplace, in Laxenburg, Austria. Had anyone told us a year ago that this is how Thanksgiving 2010 would look, we would have asked them to pee in a cup for a drug test.

Jim as the “rookie” American was assigned the task of explaining Thanksgiving to the non-U.S. attendees. Among his entertaining observations was that these folks share direct Mayflower lineage:  Marilyn Monroe, Hugh Hefner and Sarah Palin. I will refrain from any editorial comment.
The Mayflower

The food was abundant and delicious, but the best part of dinner for me was speaking English for hours. I was seated next to a charming young Swiss scientist, Stephan, who had spent time in the U.S., and whose English was flawless.

Because IIASA supports scientists from more than a dozen countries, I asked Stephan if he noticed any nationalistic differences in how scientists approach their work. His observation was that European scientists tend to work from the bottom up. That is, they begin with step 1, and only when it is completely understood, do they move to step 2. It is a detail-oriented, meticulous process. American scientists, he said, tend to begin instead with the big picture. They articulate the vision first, and then go to the process, an approach he considered more creative.  (JFK: We will go to the moon. Now, scientists, figure out how to make that happen.)

Christmas lights, Dist. 1
It seems to me, if you combine the two approaches (and whichever methods the Arab and Asian scientists use) and spread them over multiple disciplines (and add sufficient funding and political will), few scientific problems will prove unsolvable.

In a similar way, people from different cultures write differently, something that became obvious with my ESL students. Americans prefer a linear, concise approach, while some cultures expect a more florid style with repetition and less structure. Spanish speakers will write an entire page using only commas; periods somehow restrict their sense of rhythm. Korean writers typically begin an essay with some large, philosophical point and then make their way to the specific topic, thus rewarding patient readers.

Once again, I’m left wondering about cultural differences, how they evolve and why.

Pickwick's British Pub - Guinness & hamburgers

What seems to cross cultures, however, is a fascination with the bizarre. Most days we check out a “news” source called Austrian Times, which is a free web newspaper written in English. At first we considered it a genuine newspaper, and some of it probably is, but we’ve realized it’s more News of the Weird for this part of Europe. Among the stories that may or may not cross the Atlantic:

A man in Graz, Austria, was fined 800 euros for yodeling while mowing his lawn. His Muslim neighbors who were praying thought he was mocking them and filed a complaint. The judge agreed. The man, 63, said, “I simply started to yodel a few tunes because I was in such a good mood.”

A woman in Budapest, Hungary, won the Miss Plastic Queen pageant, a beauty contest for women who have had cosmetic surgery. She won because the judges “praised the neat stitching on her boob job.” She and her fake body parts advance to the Miss Plastic Universe pageant.

Vienna Tram

The oldest murderer in Austria was recently re-apprehended after a month on the lam.  The 83-year-old beat her 78-year-old neighbor to death three years ago, then stole her jewelry and wine. She was sentenced to 18 years, but after less than a year in prison, she was released to house arrest for health reasons. When the authorities decided to re-incarcerate her, her daughter said she was on a pilgrimage to the Vatican.  They found her in Poland. Not only morally but geographically challenged.

It doesn’t matter where on the planet you are.  Wherever people can be found, weirdness ensues.

Here it is, ensuing

Last week, Jim and I continued our tour guided by the delightful Duncan Smith audiotape, which took us to places in the First District we hadn’t yet been.

Stay angry!

We saw Turkish cannonballs implanted in walls (1529 and 1683), the patron saint of salt miners holding a container of salt in a corner of the oldest church in Vienna, a statue depicting the “marriage” of Mary and Joseph, and one of the childhood homes of Billy Wilder, director famous for such movies as “Some Like It Hot.”

Greek Church

The most unexpected revelation was a Greek church tucked at the end of Fleischmarkt (known for butchers and coffee). The interior was dark and rich with marble and Oriental rugs and low ceilings in the entrance.  It was gorgeous and a bit spooky. An ornate screen separates the congregation from the altar, where all sorts of mysterious things ostensibly transpire out of sight of the mere mortals.

We had lunch in one of the dining rooms of a hostelry established in 1447, Griechenbeisl Inn, located next to the church. In one of the dining rooms, the ceiling is covered with signatures, including those of Mark Twain, Mozart, Beethoven, Einstein and  Johnny Cash.

Inn then
Inn now

Also, most of you have probably sung some version of “Ach, du liebe Augustine,” some of you no doubt while waving beer steins. This café is allegedly where the song was written. Legend has it that Augustine was a street musician who, during the 1679 plague in Vienna, fell into a pit of dead plague victims when he was quite drunk. He didn’t contract the dread disease, apparently due to the prodigious amounts of alcohol in his system. 

Before lunch, we stopped in a small art gallery filled with large, colorful, almost New Agey, paintings, not our type but interesting nonetheless. We began a conversation with the owner, a woman about our age who seemed a bit imperious.  She was tall, slender, elegant, classy, very blonde and initially regarded us with what seemed disdain.

Misti studying lyrics 

Our conversation started with our commenting on an unusual painting of Manhattan. The woman, who spoke excellent English, explained that it was a depiction of the things “most important” to Americans. On top of each building was an icon such as the MacDonald arches, a cheeseburger, a Coke can, Bank of America, Chase Bank….. I told her that although it was a wonderful painting, I found it sad, which she didn’t understand. It’s the question I always ask my students – why, when great American literature and music and art exist, do foreign countries embrace our pop culture and finances instead? What bothered me was the notion that these are the things “most important” to Americans.

She is a native of Vienna, but in the 1980s she married a Lebanese man and lived in Beirut, once a jewel of a city, for seven years, including during the civil war. She left, and she doesn’t go back. Tragically, she believes Beirut will never recover its previous glory. Her seriousness it seems was born of seeing too much inhumanity and senseless destruction.  The conversation was the highlight of our day.

Her gallery is a former stable, and underneath where we were standing, she said are several levels still accessible by her.  On some days, she said, the gallery smells like what it once was.  We couldn’t see that portion of underground Vienna, but later we had our first underground Vienna experience other than the U-Bahn.
Drinking for Centuries 

The Twelve Apostles Cellar, formerly a monastery wine cellar, is now a restaurant.  The place consists of several underground stone vaults, some supported by 12th-century archways.  These cellars have survived intact war after war after war after war.

We still have much of the tour remaining, which is one of the sweet advantages of living in a historic city rather than merely visiting it. In recent days our attention has been on the present – the incredible beauty of Vienna during Christmas. Lights of every configuration, a festive feeling on the street, enchanting Christmas markets complete with women in angel costumes with white wings who are really the pickpocket patrol, mulled wine (gluhwein) flowing freely and casting everything in an even warmer hue.

Picking ornaments/Christmas Market

Today, it’s very cold and we’re having a substantial snowstorm (school is open but all after school activities are cancelled), which according to our landlady, is rare for early December. Jim has returned with croissants and, more importantly, Das grosse Taschentuch (Kleenex)! My nose thanks him. 

Winter warmth
So, a belated Happy Thanksgiving to all, and remember, Christmas shopping in Vienna  beats an American shopping mall any day. Come visit….

[Jim's Blog Contest -- As Misti noted, there are some historic and famous signatures on the ceiling and walls of the Griechenbeisl Inn, but as people were dining in the room, we didn't have time to find them.  Here are some shots of the ceiling with names we don't recognize.   Anyone who can identify one of these people will win something -- maybe a beer coaster from the Griechenbeisl if I can steal one when Misti isn't looking. So, who are these people?]