Sunday, January 23, 2011

Not a beautiful day in Der Nachbarschaft

Jan. 23, 2011

I think there’s a new plague in this city that strikes primarily non-Austrians as Keir, Jim’s British boss, an American family I know, and now Jim have all been stricken. More than likely there have been news stories in the local press about this, but, guess what, I can’t read the local newspapers. If I were paranoid, I’d think the Viennese (who have been honored recently with reports saying Vienna is the most livable city in the world and dishonored with surveys showing Vienna maintains significant xenophobic tendencies) were testing our mettle as foreigners.

I’ve just shown extremely bad taste invoking the word “plague.” Vienna has a tragic history of the bubonic plague. Because Vienna sits on the Danube River at the far end of Western Europe, it got caught in a biological crossfire. The plague came to Vienna via both Europe from the west and the Ottoman Empire from the east. The worst of it occurred in 1679. The death toll estimates of that horrible period, according to the Internet, range from official coroners’ reports of roughly 8,000 to other reports of 120,000, with most sources agreeing to a number between 70,000 and 80,000. The statistics remind me of the crowd estimates during demonstrations on the D.C. mall.
Plague then

If you’ve read the blog, you’ve seen evidence of the plague: Remember Augustine, who purportedly escaped the scourge due to his alcohol-saturated body? Also, the Graben (home of those beautiful Christmas chandeliers) has a large Baroque (and rather garish) monument to the plague victims.

Plague now 
In addition, the church we barely noticed on the day we were at a Christmas market and were too cold to dally, the Karlskirche, was also built to thank heaven for ending a later plague.

Given that our favorite church, the Votivkirche, was created out of gratitude for a failed assassination attempt, it seems the Viennese have a propensity for turning tragedy and near-tragedy into architectural inspiration.

Jim came home sick on Friday and by yesterday was so ill, I was worried.

Now it’s family (and neighborhood) folklore that I don’t cope well with illness and emergencies, despite the fact that I intended to go to medical school and spent many hours working in a hospital as a high school and college student. I’ve taken my share of rectal temperatures, emptied bed pans and emesis basins, measured urine, irrigated catheters, administered back rubs (in the old days, patients in American hospitals were treated with much more kindness and care than in current days), and I know my way around a bed bath.

You would think that flu, such as Jim seemed to have, would not faze me. Ha. My reaction when a loved one is sick or injured? I shut down, get irritated, and/or panic. Florence Nightingale and I have nothing but female anatomy in common.

I attribute this to my northern European genes. The two words I doubt exist in Norwegian, except spoken in sarcasm, are “poor baby.” And the fatalism I would also attribute to ancestors foolish enough to live in a land that has months without sunshine.

Illness in a foreign country brings a new set of challenges.

Since Jim had a fever and a severe headache and was in danger of coughing up a lung, I imagined getting him to the ER, considering I haven’t driven since we got here. I frequently go weeks without even being in a car because I walk or use public transportation. The Kangoo is a stick shift, as are most European cars, and I haven’t driven with a stick shift for years; instead, I watch in admiration and terror as Jim maneuvers around trams and audacious bikers and pedestrians (who frequently step into the street without looking) all while shifting gears. Fortunately, I remembered there is a taxi stand a half block from our apartment. I had an alternative.

Because it was Saturday, I knew I needed to get to the  Apotheke (think “apothecary”) before noon, when it would close.  Buying medicine here is quite different from in the U.S. What seem to be drug stores aren’t. For instance, you can go to the corner Schleckers or DM or Bipa (but not in the evenings or Sunday) and buy cosmetics, laundry soap, hygiene products, diapers and most of the things available in a CVS in the States. But, buying over-the-counter drugs, such as ibuprofen or cold and flu medicine, requires a visit to the Apotheke.

We use the corner Apotheke, which is staffed with friendly young female pharmacists. A woman who spoke excellent English gave me the medicine I needed, and for the first time I noticed that Austrian medication includes Braille on the box.

Wicks -- not the Wapo Rub
This Apotheke is named after a saint (I think St. Anne) and she beams beatifically from an oil painting hanging behind the old wooden counter. Generally I prefer my medicine without a dose of religion, but this particular day I would take succor from any quarter. The pharmacist got me the ibuprofen and Wick (yes, Vicks in English) flu medicine and advised me to consider calling a doctor since Jim had had his flu vaccine a little over a week ago.

When I got home, I began searching through this expertly written, edited and researched series of three books,  Living in Vienna, which I wish we had had before we moved here. (Any Americans planning on spending significant time living in Austria should buy the series, published by the American Women’s Association of Vienna.) I found the calming words I needed:

Doctors-on-Call; der Ärtzefunkdienst.

“A doctor comes to your home, examines the patient, and prescribes medication, if necessary. You can request an English-speaking doctor.”

Americans, did you read that? House calls!! I could relax.

However, Jim didn’t want a doctor because he wasn't yet seeing the bright light in the tunnel. He took the medicine, slept fitfully, sweated it out, and today it appears he has averted bronchitis, pneumonia, and death. And I have a newfound respect for a medical system that already seems more humane than that in the States (Braille? House calls?).

Apparently Jim doesn’t have the plague, although years ago he was tested for it. When we were in Minneapolis, Jim became ill with a mysterious disease that left him hospitalized for five days. Experts from throughout the hospital and medical students became involved in the mystery of what-does-Jim-have. It was like an episode of “House” without all the lumbar punctures and home break-ins. Because we had spent time in New Mexico, Jim was tested for bubonic plague, which still exists in the American Southwest. That test was negative.

The doctors never did figure out what he had, although the state epidemiologist was on the side of hanta virus, and he survived. He didn’t have the plague then and, I trust, he doesn’t have it now.

Dec. 15, 2010: Voyeur Part 2

Months ago I wrote about my new life as voyeur. I wrote this entry weeks ago but  didn’t post it. Since we were unable to continue our wanderings of Vienna this weekend, here it is.

One of the major differences in our life here in Vienna is that we’re urban dwellers. We’ve lived in residential areas for the last few decades; now we’re in the middle of a city, and I love it. Despite my isolation, up here in the apartment, I can at least be a vicarious part of the life of Vienna.

Today, the Viennese below me are having a miserable time, and depending on my mood, I might soon join their ranks.

First, a digression. When I went to college in 1971, I went to a Lutheran school, St. Olaf, in a small town outside of Minneapolis. It was expensive, cloistered, and had a good academic reputation. In my first and only semester there (love called and I answered), most of what I learned had little to do with academics and much more to do with the “bigger world” of class distinctions and geographical variants.

My first adjustment was trees. The campus was beautiful by most standards, hilly and absolutely covered with trees. A prairie girl, I couldn’t find the horizon and the claustrophobia nearly did me in.

Then, one rainy day when I was walking into the lobby of the main building, I was struck dumb. There on the floor in front of me, seemingly for acres, stood up-side-down umbrellas of every hue, the handles sticking up in the air, some straight and some akimbo, the open canopies resembling boats that had masts but had lost their sails. I thought I had stumbled through the looking glass. I stopped. I stared.

It might be hard for most of you to imagine this, but I had never owned an umbrella. I’m not sure my family owned an umbrella. South Dakota is very dry, and when it rained (there were astonishing gully washers every now and then usually accompanied by high winds and drama), it was cause for celebration. Excited kids headed outside after the lightning had passed and splashed barefooted in the gutters now roiling with cool, fresh water. Being soaked to the skin was refreshing, delightful.

I remember my mother and other women wore those transparent plastic bonnets that came folded up in a little square, but I don’t remember umbrellas. An umbrella was something only the judge’s or mayor’s kids had, something pretentious.

When I was a teenager, I came across some British writer’s description of being caught out-of-doors sans umbrella. He described how drenched he became but his distress diminished with the realization that he had “become one with the weather, one with the day.”

I think of that line every time I open an umbrella and feel guilty.

(Now, imagine my reaction when I went to the St. Olaf Christmas Concert, a famous concert usually televised nationally, and I saw what seemed to be hundreds of classmates’ parents and alumni clad in full-length fur coats…. I’d seen a lot of fur in my lifetime but not on people.)

Back to 2010.  It’s been snowing most of the day and chaos has resulted, so I opened my third-story window and stuck my head out to feel the snow in my face, to delight in the moisture and the chill on my neck. My intent was both to feel a bit more one with the day and to get a better view of the commotion below.

Währingerstrasse is a fairly major thoroughfare linking the Gürtel, basically a 4-lane beltway, and the First District. Because this is an old city, the street is very limited. It consists of two main lanes, both fitted with tram tracks for the many trams running north and south. There is a third lane, kind of, but cars park along various parts of it, complicating the traffic pattern.

It’s not unusual to look down and see a tram closely followed by a bicycle with a helmetless rider, closely followed by a motor scooter, then a huge truck, then a car, then a tour bus, then a motorcycle, then another tram, all separated by mere inches in the tram track lanes. The rails have gaps running the length beside them which for a bicyclist is a calamity waiting to happen.

Neighborhood Fahrrad shop
Another historical note. When Reeve’s dad and I bicycled about 1,500 miles from Madison, Wis., to New Orleans, in 1979, we rode on many highways with virtually no shoulder; there was just a white line painted on the edge and a two or three-inch sharp drop from asphalt to gravel.  On a late Friday afternoon on an insanely busy two-lane highway just outside St. Genevieve, Missouri, it happened. We were pedaling like demons to get to a campsite before dark when my front tire slipped off the pavement and got caught in the groove, and I and my bicycle were thrown sprawling into the middle of the highway.

At that moment, there was a rare and serendipitous break in traffic, and as nothing was broken, I leapt up, grabbed my bike, and dove for the ditch as the traffic once again barreled at me. I’ve often wondered why I wasn’t road kill that day.

So, when I watch these bicyclists courting death in these tram tracks, I’m torn between horror and admiration.

Today it’s been snowing hard and the roads are icy. The traffic was stopped, gridlock style, for nearly an hour outside my window. The traffic coming in from the side streets was all bollixed up, the brave or crazy bicyclists were weaving in and out, cars were trying to maneuver illegal U-turns to make their escape. At one point I counted five trams, none of which could move.

I heard intermittent sirens as first a police car and then two ambulances tried to navigate the street; the police gave up and backed into a side street and left.

I was hanging out my window, taking in the spectacle (and not grabbing the camera, drat) when I heard three short, loud explosions.  Now, in D.C., that would be cause for alarm, but Vienna doesn’t seem to be high on any terrorists’ lists. Instead I imagine what happened was a problem with the electrical lines that run the trams, maybe a transformer blew.

Despite how frustrated the drivers below must have been, the street was actually pretty quiet considering - only a few horns were leaned on. This isn’t because the Viennese are such patient people; it’s because it’s illegal to honk your horn unless you’re avoiding an imminent accident. It’s illegal for parents to honk their horns, for instance, if they are picking up a student at school.

It’s also apparently illegal to flip off another driver. (But, it’s not illegal to say the word “fuck” or in the case of a currently popular song, “Fuck Me,” on the radio.)

Based on the fact that traffic was a mess everywhere, I finally decided to wimp out and stay inside. I was supposed to tutor a student at Keir’s school, but to get there requires a tram ride, a bus ride, and a walk.  I rescheduled.

Eventually, the traffic resumed, Keir made it home only a little bit late, and Jim survived a slow return from Laxenberg.

I just glanced out the window and saw a bundled up bear of a person riding a unicycle down the snow-covered sidewalk. I kid you not.

I love this street.

Sunday, January 16, 2011


Dec. 2010/Jan. 2011

The last two weeks, the end of one year and beginning of another, have been colored by the splendid and annoying; life, that is.

Having most of the family here for Christmas was exciting, memorable, sweet.

Dyl arrived from New York on time, despite arriving at JFK to discover the airline (Lufthansa) had overbooked and he was initially bumped from the flight (annoying), but as recompense, he got to fly first-class (splendid). From here on out, I’ll let you supply the appropriate adjectives.

Reeve and family made it as scheduled as well despite the Brussels airport (cheapest flight: Marseilles to Brussels to Vienna) having been closed for days, as were many Western European airports due to the unusually severe weather. Fortunately, the day they traveled, the skies were clear.

Colin & Erin, suffering
Will & Colin, suffering
The apartment was soon filled with hugs and kisses and laughter, and a new center of attention, 8-month-old Ocean, who had days before terrified his parents with his first episode of high fever and a severe cold. The only hole in this family tapestry was the absence of Erin, Will and Colin, who, sadly, were suffering terribly in Hawaii. Poor things. 

Now, Jim (and Erin) love Christmas, and for Jim, the tree is paramount – and must be massive. A few days before everyone arrived, Keir and Jim found a perfect tree just blocks from here, and hauled it up the dozens of steps. We don’t know what specific type of tree it was, but unlike American trees, it shed very few needles, even after two weeks, and lacked the lingering, evocative pine scent we craved.

We had bought a few ornaments at flea markets, and by the time we had put them on the tree and everyone had finished blowing European paper streamers every which way, voila, a Christmas tree. Keir proclaimed our decorating a bit “random." 
Keir carefully decorates the tree

Our goal Christmas morning was for the festivities to start no later than 6 a.m., but we used U.S. time, so everyone was finally up and about by noon. We’re in that happy period when the big kids are too old and Ocean too young to be much excited by Christmas morning.

I fall more in love with the beauty of this city every month, and despite Dyl, Reeve and Melanie having extensive experience with cities, notably Marseilles, Miami, Paris, and New York, they, too, were amazed by the distinctive landscape and elegance of Vienna.

It was Reeve and Melanie’s wedding anniversary, and to celebrate, they attended an intimate chamber concert (about 60 people) at one of the Mozart houses. 
Mozart Haus

We grandparents babysat and Ocean also had a cultural experience - his first glimpses of a Redskins game.

Streaming the Skins
One of the delights of having adult children is they bring different perspectives, knowledge, and awareness to the household.  Keir, 17, did a remarkable job of not only coping with but, I think, enjoying the loving assault of the older brothers as they evaluated everything from his cultural tastes to his study habits to his future prospects.

Playing for Euros 
We learned about movies including the classic French movie, “La Boeuf,” in which a bunch of people eat themselves to death, and the not-so-classic American movie, "The Expendables," in which a bunch of people blow things up.  Jim, Dyl and Keir went to the Burg Kino to watch “The Third Man” on a big screen and Reeve and Melanie took in a couple of art museums. We listened to music, discussed generational gaps regarding humor, and were introduced to the paintball episode of “Community."
Losing their Euros
Dylan at the Christmas market

We talked a little bit about politics, and Reeve and I had only one somewhat energetic exchange -- regarding whether “imperialistic” is the correct word to describe the U.S. I’ll leave you to your assumptions.

I could rave about Ocean’s sweetness for pages, but anyone in love with grandbabies understands. But, one particularly intriguing aspect to his life is Melanie’s interaction with him. Now, Melanie is French and an artist, and that might conjure up some cultural assumptions. What I saw was a depth of sensuality between mama and baby I don’t think I’ve seen before. The relatively straightforward task of changing a diaper, for instance, became a tender ritual. Despite Ocean’s squirms and howls of complaint, Melanie gently stroked his little limbs and tummy and forehead, kissed his toes, nuzzled his fingers, and laughed and murmured until the job was done, which often took a long while.  One thing the French definitely know how to do is savor the moment whether it's a meal, a glass of wine, or a diaper change.  I never saw Melanie hurry with Ocean; my sons as babies were not so fortunate.

The Diaper Change
Christmas Kid 
Dyl stayed one extra day because he once again was bumped from an overbooked flight (Austrian Airlines).  What was particularly annoying, he said, was that after he and about five others were told they weren’t going, the plane was held so some European rock star and his family could board at the last minute. The universal perks of celebrity. Luckily, the airline offered him a refund, essentially a free flight the next day.
For us it was – yup, splendid -  as we got to enjoy Dyl for another night of lively, entertaining conversation. The next morning he got to New York in time to attend a rehearsal mere hours after his arrival. While here he had gotten good news – the writing group, Naked Radio, of which he is a member, was written up in the Wall Street Journal.

Dylan, right, in WSJ photo
And his influence lingered. I was in Keir’s room a day or so later when I heard the lyrics to one of Kanye West’s “tunes” which included a lot of talk about p’s (I’d write the word, but some porn filters and weirdos might notice). Let’s just say he wasn’t talking about cats. This led to a conversation about attitudes toward women and a deal. I would listen to Kanye’s new album, “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy,” in its entirety, but while I listened, Keir had to study.

I put on the headphones and for more than an hour I entered a very different musical world from the one I had been inhabiting recently. For weeks earlier I had been forcing myself to listen to a lot of Mozart since I’m in Vienna and can’t escape his presence. Now, I’ve played Mozart piano sonatas and heard Mozart all my adult life, but few of his works deeply move me.

So, back to Kanye. I listened intently. Keir checked on me occasionally looking puzzled. I think he thought he had gotten the better part of the deal – that I’d listen for 10 minutes, proclaim it disgusting, and he wouldn’t have to study. Instead, I was enthralled. I had never heard music like this – the arrangements, the instrumentation, the humor, the ingenious wordplay, the energy, the emotional range, the complexity, the poetry, the collaborative effort, in short, the brilliance. The album is amazing (though I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone offended by graphic language).

In February, we will have been actively parenting (that is, having a child under age 18 in the household) for 31 years nonstop. What I didn’t know during many of these years is that after all that effort to teach children about the world, to expose them to books and art and science and music and much of what life entails, they would return the favor. We have learned so much from our children.

When Reeve’s family and then Dyl left, the apartment suddenly seemed way too quiet and empty.

The Random Tree
Christmas 2010 was splendid. 

Dec. 31 and what followed? Not so much.

On the last day of 2010, we were robbed. Twice.

First “robbery.” We wanted to transfer some American funds and needed a notary. We went to our bank assuming this would be a simple and inexpensive procedure as it is in the U.S.  Instead we were directed to a law firm where we were assisted by a warm, capable (and wonderfully dressed) young attorney. After more than a half hour during which he and a couple of assistants bustled about, he presented us with a beautifully bound document, that cost us almost $180. The unusual, delicately striped string binding seemed more Asian than Austrian.
Learning yet again to be careful about assumptions, especially with regard to financial matters, we put the cost out of heads, hopped on the tram and headed downtown to celebrate Silvester (New Year’s Eve). The weather was mild, the streets packed, the Christmas lights beginning to look a little tired. Numerous stages were set up around the downtown, most featuring Djs playing American pop music and Christmas carols.

We headed to Stephansdom, where classical musicians were performing. When one opera singer sang excerpts from “Carmen,” the people, young and old, sang along.
Vienna at Midnight 

Then we were robbed. Again. Here’s Jim:

Lucky Pig Hats 
Perhaps when you were little and your parents read you "Three Billy Goats Gruff," you spent the next few months having nightmares about the fearsome troll that lived under the bridge. Well, just before midnight, in the midst of a dense crowd of exuberant Viennese -- some wearing the traditional "lucky pig" hats -- that fearsome troll's aggressive wife emerged and attacked.  As I was standing with Misti taking in the chaos, I turned to see a small troll woman coming right at me with a leer on her face.

Beware the Troll!
It was New Years, so I figured it was a crazed woman who was drunk.  Bad assumption.  She came in low, grabbed my crotch with her right hand and my right wrist with her left hand.  When I was 11 years old and lived in Mainz, Germany, I was kissed squarely on the lips by a slightly drunk young lady during city-wide Fasching celebration.  It was a first and I was shocked  . . . but in a good way.   The crotch-grabbing by the troll lady was shocking, but not in a good way.  (The image here is from The Princess Bride, and is almost exactly what our troll lady looked like)
Troll Wife 

So, I grabbed her crotch-seeking hand, pulled free of her grip and pushed her away. "Nein! Nein! Gehen sie!" I said as I leaned down to her level and held her at bay.  When I was a kid in Germany I learned a lot of really graphic Deutsch obscenities … I'm proud that I didn't use even one of them on the troll lady.  I thought she got the message, even though the leer on her face never changed, so I turned back to Misti.  That was a mistake.

She came at me again, from behind, so I turned, grabbed her once more and used a little more force both in my yelling and pushing.  She retreated and was gone.

When we got home much later, it became clear that we'd been assaulted by a pickpocket, not a crazy woman --although she may have really been a troll's wife.

My wallet, zipped in my inside coat pocket, was safe, as were my camera and cell phone -- all kept in zipped pockets.  The cash in my left front pocket was there, but about 70 Euros in my right front pocket was gone.  Somewhere in all of the tussling, she'd gotten fingers into the front right pocket of my Levis and lifted a couple of bills.
I've talked to a few people about the incident and what stands out is the audacity of it.  A colleague lost a lot of money from her purse on a tram, and pickpocketing is apparently common enough to warrant constant warnings from city officials.  Indeed, at some of the recent Christmas markets the "angels" wandering through the crowds in costume were actually polizei on pickpocket patrol.
What makes this victimization particularly annoying is that I spend a couple of nights a week practicing how to beat people up.  I've been doing it for years.  I'm a black belt in Tae Kwon Do, for God's sake, but I didn't stop the troll's wife.  (For those young martial artists who are working their way up through the color belts, I don't really practice beating people up but defending myself against the abuses of others … and if they happen to get hurt in the process … well … that has to do with Zen and the negative flow of their energy and not with me.  Peace and Love).

Back to Misti.

Now, since we didn’t yet know we had been victimized,  when the Blue Danube Waltz was played at midnight, we did our pathetic impression of waltzing in the square. Only in Vienna. And then, checking pockets, we realized the yin and yang of Silvester in Wien.

Waltzing at Stephansdom
A couple of days later, we were informed that the U.S. financial company wouldn’t accept our foreign notarization, despite the cost, the beautiful binding, and the obviously way-more-official look to the document than that an American notary would ever provide.

We suggested they check the signature against the one I provided right before we left the country that had been duly notarized.  No. We offered to Skype with the company. I’d hold up my passport and sign in front of them. No. We offered to divorce to make things simpler. The man laughed, then caught himself. Awkward silence.

“Find an American notary,” he said. Imagine being an Austrian in, say, Denver, and having some American official say, “Find an Austrian notary!” Now, no doubt we could find that American notary if we wanted to expend more time and energy, and spend more money, but why? What amazed us was that in this era of a global economy, global banking, global blahblahblah, we decidedly not wealthy Americans were treated as if we were bilking somebody out of something by simply withdrawing a little of our own money. Incidentally, we were simply moving money from one long-established American account to another long-established American account.

Now, I hate to be petulant, but how many of those filthy rich Americans with Swiss or other offshore accounts have been denied access to their own funds? Oh, yes, the universal perks of wealth.

Then, in short order, I lost my Handy (cell phone); dropped the external hard drive to Jim’s computer and broke it (cost to retrieve information: hundreds of dollars, so we won’t); dropped and broke my favorite china cup; and no, I don’t have a drinking problem. In addition, at least two packages sent to us from the U.S. weeks ago haven’t arrived and mail we sent to the U.S. weeks ago also is in postal limbo. And, in fact, the reason we needed money was because a check I sent to the U.S. in early December apparently vanished. Whether it’s the EU’s fault or the U.S.’s is anybody’s guess.

Then we got the frightening news that put simple annoyances into perspective. Mere days after his return, Dyl was hospitalized in New York because he was very ill with a nasty virus. The day before he headed to the ER, he had auditioned for a TV commercial. The role required him to act frightened and anxious, and as he was already feverish and fighting nausea, his audition had a bit more verisimilitude than usual.  He got the part, his first commercial (not because he was sick, but because he’s a talented, experienced actor). Now he’s supposed to fly to Argentina to film a commercial for some German company. You got that right. The German company hired an American actor to film a commercial in Argentina that will be shown in the EU; the new global economy – unless you’re not rich and simply want to move some money.

So, it’s now the second week of 2011. Dyl is healthy again and, after some delays (you know those arty types) on his way to Argentina; Jim finally found my cell phone wedged in a barely accessible nook in the Kangoo; after much negotiation, the money was transferred; the missing check arrived in the U.S.; the new hard drive is here; and life is back to normal.

2010 is over,  2011 has begun, and life is just as rich and complicated as ever.

To all of you, a wish that 2011 brings more splendid and fewer annoying moments into your lives. By the way, I can guarantee you some splendid moments: Come visit us in Vienna.

We promise to protect you from both the troll and his wife.