Sunday, November 27, 2011

Vienna On The Verge

We are on the verge of December, which means the Viennese are already deep into the Christmas season.  The Christmas markets are open, the decorative lights over the streets and plazas are lit (including our Wahringerstrasse electric blue Christmas clouds), and the weather has turned appropriately cold.

Merry Christmas
Misti and I have been off to the Christmas markets in search of gifts that are uniquely Viennese.  The markets are appealing, especially the smaller ones, because you can drink warm, mulled wine while you wander the booths, and unlike the stores, they are open all weekend.

As always in our outings, we come upon surprises.  One recent cold, wet Saturday we were wandering with no particular purpose and beginning to think better of it when we turned a corner and were met with a parade that encompassed much of the European military past.

 We still don't know exactly what it was about, but it was like watching a history book march by.  The pictures don't do it justice.  The horses were enormous.

Most of what we've been doing, however, has centered around Keir's activities.  We've always enjoyed watching our kids play sports, perform in plays, do music and the like.  Keir, as the last of the herd, has dutifully provided us with years of basketball and baseball games, as well as a few wrestling meets and karate events.

For the past few months he's been on his high school varsity volleyball team, and once we figured out the rules, volleyball has proved as exciting as the other sports.  As with everything over here, what is routine is, for us, exotic.

Keir's school hosted the high school volleyball championship tournament, so Keir played against students from Athens, Tel Aviv, Brussels, Munich, Dusseldorf and a few other schools.  We had boys from the Brussels team stay with us, one American and one Swedish, although neither one of them had spent much time in their home countries.

That is typical in the international community.  Keir has noticed that in discussions about America in his classes, he is just about the only American student who has spent much time actually living in the States.  There are a few others like him at the school, but most of the kids have lived all over the world as their diplomat/business parents move from assignment to assignment.  Some of the American kids were born outside of the U.S. and have only visited their "home country" a few times.  Keir finds it interesting, and sometimes amusing, when other students tell him what it's like in the U.S., having never lived there.

Misti ran into a more extreme situation recently when some Viennese women lectured her on American traditions.

The details are secondary, but it had to do with a planned school celebration.  Misti would say something like, "I've lived in the US all my life and had three other children go through American high schools.  What you are suggesting isn't an American tradition." The Viennese women would continue talking over her about the need to do the celebration just so because it was an American tradition.  Reality seems not to matter in much of life.

Keir's team played well in the volleyball tournament and made it to the final four.  As he was playing his last set, Misti and I realized that after more than 30 years of being parents, this was likely the last high school sports event we'd attend, at least until the grandchildren become teens.

But as the thrill of victory and agony of defeat thing came to an end, Keir announced that he was upholding a family tradition of playing in a rock band. I was in one back when the Vanilla Fudge were popular, and Dylan spent a couple of years playing in a great band in New York.  In addition, my half-brother Adam is the drummer for the Virginia Coalition, and Keir's big brother Reeve is currently in Miami recording his songs with a group of fellow musicians. So we were off to a talent show where he played lead guitar in a good version of Shiver by Coldplay.

As is evident from the photos, Keir is rather intense when he plays.  His guitar, by the way, is a Schecter.  The band was good.

While we're on the topic of musicians, they are everywhere downtown this time of year, mostly playing German/Austrian tunes.  Here are a couple of images from recent weeks.

I'll conclude with Thanksgiving, which, obviously, doesn't exist in Austria.  Apparently it is one American tradition the Viennese women aren't interested in upholding.   Because there are many Americans at the institute where I work, however, there is an annual Thanksgiving luncheon that is spectacular.

Beyond the setting in the palace cafeteria (see photo), the lunch includes turkey, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, stuffing, gravy, green beans, carrots, and pumpkin and apple pie.   Excellent red and white Austrian wine was served and we enjoyed lively, delightful conversation with people originally from Britain, Argentina, the Philippines, and Texas.

Traditional Thanksgiving
Turkey is hard to come by in Austria, but the cooks for the luncheon did an amazing job.  They had to cook 16 turkeys in an oven that only held four (it is an industrial kitchen, but not as industrial as it needed to be).  The cooks started at 3 a.m. to get everything done in time, and their reward was to walk through the several palace dining rooms to resounding applause from the well-fed throng.  The pilgrims would have been proud.

Cafe Central
Keir, as he did last year at this time, spent the week in Braga, Portugal, working on a house for Habitat for Humanity, and, again, the local restaurant prepared a traditional American Thanksgiving meal exclusively for his classmates and him.

We likely will have a quiet Christmas this year, but with blue clouds out our windows and the city decorated like no other, we'll spend hours walking and enjoying the streets.  It's sort of becoming a tradition.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

The Hills Are Alive


It’s Sunday morning in Vienna, but you’d never know we were anywhere but Virginia. It’s 10:30, Keir just got out of bed, Jim and I have already read the Washington Post online and Jim is watching an American college football game on TV.  He recently discovered that we get ESPN America on our government-registered TV, and as long as he doesn’t mind watching games that have already been concluded, he’s in sports heaven. In addition, he’s expanding his knowledge of the sports world by watching channels that feature such sporting events as kung fu volleyball and tischtennis.  The only obvious clue to our whereabouts is what we just ate for breakfast: Sachertorte.

Sachertorte is diabolically, decadently rich. No, this is not our usual morning fare, but Keir’s friend Natalie bought him the famed Viennese delicacy for his birthday, and, remarkably, this dense chocolate treat encased in delectable chocolate icing has lasted for more than 24 hours. To determine who gets this last piece, we may have to play a game of Stein, Papier, Schere.

Yesterday, while Keir was at the school practicing with classmates in a band that’s going to perform at the school’s cabaret in a couple of weeks (Cold Play’s “Shiver” is among the tunes), Jim and I headed to the Naschmarkt, a huge food and flea market (flohmarkt) we visit occasionally, to check out the goods. Again, except for dodging trams, it felt not much different from driving in D.C., especially in one regard: finding a parking place took forever.

Once at the market, we wandered among the aisles searching for treasures (specifically any Leica lenses – no luck) and wishing we had a clue as to what is a remarkable find as opposed to something merely interesting. As always when I’m in the world of commerce, I found myself staggered by the infinite ways humans have of turning raw materials into utterly unnecessary objects (kitsch of every description) as well as into the objects without which life is hardly worth living (books, accordians). Among the objects seemingly in demand were American license plates. Why? No clue.

This market is similar to a market in D.C. in that immigrant languages abound, except that in the U.S. the primary second language is Spanish, a language we rarely hear in Vienna. Being no linguist, I have nothing but guesses to offer, but frequently in Vienna we hear what appear to be Slavic languages (especially Slovenian and Slovakian) with Hungarian and Romanian thrown into the mix. Many of these languages are much more melodic sounding than German.

At the marginal stalls featuring third-or-fourth-hand clothes, well-worn shoes and broken appliances, many of the proprietors appear to be elderly immigrants who wear the travails of an impoverished existence on their deeply lined faces; some are perhaps merchants who have come to Vienna simply for the day.

I was struck by the various ways in which people advertise their economic status. I saw a middle-aged woman customer, who appeared to be Eastern European (I can’t describe this look, I just know it when I see it), who smiled broadly and showed off three gold-capped teeth in a row. It reminded me of a time shortly after we moved to D.C., when I was invited to speak at a conference of international teachers sponsored by the State Department. These particular teachers were primarily from the various Stans (Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, etc.), and I noticed a few of the attendees sporting gold-capped teeth. I asked the state department representative about it and was told it was a sign of wealth, not much different, I suppose, than rappers advertising their megabucks by wearing ridiculously ostentatious grills.

As a child who was condemned to wear a silver cap on one of my front teeth for five years (FIVE YEARS!) after a neighbor boy threw a rock at a boulder during a sandlot baseball game and said rock ricocheted into my apparently open 9-year-old mouth, I find capped teeth anything but attractive and desirable.  That silver cap plus my thick blue rhinestone-studded eyeglasses, star-shaped scar on my forehead (Squeaky Fromme, anyone?), machete-shaped scar on my lower leg, and concave chest spared me any premature dating.  I suppose I should be grateful . . 

Now I’m depressed, so let’s turn from this inelegant image (photo is of Misti pre-cap, pre-host of injuries) to something far more picturesque: Salzburg. Last weekend we decided to take a day trip to Salzburg.  Instead of taking the train, which we will do next time, we drove, assuming that we could stop in various charming villages we passed through on our way. Of course, we were driving on something akin to Interstate, so such stops didn’t exist, but the countryside was quite beautiful and Salzburg was the picture postcard city we had expected to see.  Here’s Jim.

This section is best read while humming “The hills are alive with the sound of music” and imagining Julie Andrews swaying on top of a hill.  Here is an image of Maria and one of the Von Trapp girls, shown as marionettes in a wonderful little museum deep in the Hohensalzburg Castle, which is an immense fortress that looms over the city.

Misti in Convent
We only spent a few hours in Salzburg, but it was impressive.  Keir and Natalie headed in one direction, and Misti and I in another.  Keir was taking photos along the Salzach River while we climbed the high, steep hill first to the Nun's Church, then on to the fortress. 

We have seen so many incredible churches in the past year that we find ourselves looking for the little things.  This church, part of the Nonnberg Convent, was built (actually rebuilt) from 1464 to 1503, and thus feels very old and understated.

But understated does not mean simple.  The back wall of the church was a series of windows that connected to the convent, and the ceiling (as always, look up) showed a date of 1503.  Just outside the door are rows of nun's graves. 

From a distance
Up Close
After visiting with the nuns, we headed further up the "hill" to the castle proper.  If ever there were a castle that seems impenetrable, this is it.  The fortress contains a small town within its walls.  There are cannons, a torture chamber, memorabilia from long-ago wars, a pyramid made of cannon balls, and a bier garten.  We toured the bier garten first, then wandered through passageways and courtyards until we came upon something entirely unexpected: a marionette museum.  

That is where we found the dancing girls at the top of this blog, plus a wonderful, and sometimes a little creepy, collection of wooden people.  The exhibits of wooden heads, hands, and feet were fascinating, as were the ghouls. 


Off to the side (the museum was in a couple of dark castle rooms) a video was running of the original artists who made these marionettes.  We were so enthralled with the puppets that we didn't get the dates or much background information, but we later learned that the marionettes are from a theater that started in 1913 with an opera about Mozart.  The theater is still putting on operas. The video was of the ballet Swan Lake, performed delicately with a wonderful wooden ballerina.

Swan Lake

Back out on the walls of the castle, looking south and west toward the Alps, was the stuff of movies.  

Castle with a View
We wondered if these were the mountains the Von Trapp's had to cross to get to Switzerland to escape the Nazis, but then we read the real story and learned that they actually walked to the Salzburg bahnhof and caught a train to Italy. 

Misti and I strolled the streets of old Salzburg much like we do in Vienna, and while streets are similar ... old and narrow with beautiful buildings everywhere ... we had a sense that something was missing.   Eventually, we looked up and realized the rooftops weren't lined with statues.  After a year in Vienna, we missed them.  

The Austrians have a habit of putting modern pieces of sculpture in the middle of ancient squares, and these pieces are often jarring as much for their anachronistic setting as for the art itself.  On the Graben in Vienna there are several very tall, black Michelin Men kind of Teenage Mutant Ninja statues standing next to the classic pieces.  The juxtaposition is an intentional statement of sorts, but we've never liked these particular pieces because they are, in our eyes, ugly.  Really ugly.  What we found in Salzburg provides another sense of how odd the artistic choices can be.

He's Art
Art from a distance
Keir's Sign
Keir discovered another piece of art that appeared old and classic, but wasn't.  Hanging signs are common in Vienna and Salzburg (see street photo above, left), and many are historic.  Look closely and you'll see that Keir's discovery is less than historic. 

But Salzburg truly is stunning, so I'll conclude this with a couple of images from Keir and me of the city and the mountains, taken from the castle.    

Alps at Dusk

From the Castle 

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Fine Fine Arts of Vienna

{News Flash: Erin is pregnant. Grandchild #3 due in May. Yippee! And in honor of his impending big brother status, here’s Colin, a Halloween bee.}

Colin the Bee
I came to Vienna with no preconceptions other than that it was a beautiful city renown for its arts, Wiener schnitzel and tortes. Of all of these, the arts bestow world-class status upon this relatively small city (fewer than 2 million inhabitants) sitting a bit isolated on the furthermost edge of Western Europe. Without the classical music, the elegant architecture, and the provocative works of such artists as Klimt and Schiele, Vienna would be a sad has-been city hardly worth a second glance. Fortunately, even embedded in the gloom of its history and glumness of too many of its denizens, the fine arts of Vienna shine through every single day. I simply have to look out my windows and behold.

Seeing Vienna 
Understandably given our individual bents, we three have experienced the arts of Vienna in various ways. Jim and I have written about our tours ala Duncan Smith’s fine guides and hopefully communicated our continuing amazement at the architectural details (Look up! Look up!). 

When we raved about our favorite statue, the bronze reclining woman in the Palais Kinsky courtyard, our friend Jennifer remarked that even looking at the photo made her feel like a voyeur; the aura of intimacy that surrounds the woman in a mere photograph is palpable in reality – when we visit her, we whisper.  

Still Sleeping
Much remains that we haven’t yet explored, including palaces, art museums, operas, and concerts. Tickets to the grandest venues are pricey, and that’s as it should be; excellence rarely comes cheap. I hope I never live in a society that doesn’t generously support the arts because without them, we might as well return to picking lice out of each other’s fur or slink back into the murky water.

Before we leave Vienna, we will devise a way to partake of the many offerings without buying standing-room only tickets, a perfect alternative for the young but not for the decrepit old. What is German for “rob a bank”?

Keir, who doesn’t accompany us on many of our outings, and who will turn 18 on Friday (18!) has experienced the arts of Vienna both on his own and as a student.

Of his seven classes, his Fine Arts class is the one I most covet. Keir and his classmates have toured the extensive crypts under St. Stephansdom (the fine arts are mostly above ground in the cathedral itself, but the placement of those thousands of skulls constitute an art form in itself), attended a rehearsal of the Vienna Boys Choir, and seen a contemporary whodunit at the city’s British theatre.  These venues are available to the rest of us in some form, but because of his school, he saw more of the skeletons and bones in more of the crypts than most visitors are allowed and was actually invited to sit amidst the famed boys during rehearsal. According to Keir, his and his classmates’ reaction after hearing those dulcet tones was, “We’re all a bunch of losers.”

In honor of his birthday, today’s blog features Keir’s photographs of the city which is and isn’t his home.

Vienna Opera House
Look Up


Winter Returning

The Bubble
The Organ 
By the Canal

The Saints