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.

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