Sunday, March 27, 2011

Tales from Vienna and the Woods

Remember the last blog in early February:  We exist?  Contrary to appearances, given our long absence, we do. We are still living – and occasionally thriving - in Vienna. 

The silence was not due to proverbial writer’s block but to the banality of illness. One week, Jim was sick, Keir and I weren’t; the next, all of us were sick; the next, Jim and I were sick, Keir wasn’t; the next….  I know I should be able to do the mathematical permutation of how many combinations of well and ill (including varieties and severity of such illnesses) three people can create over two months, but I can’t. I think I’ll just guess – 666.

Us, sick
Now I’ve heard that our Virginia friends are going through the same strange configurations of multiple illnesses that linger (flu and pink eye??). Why is it that mutated rogue genetic material and stupid YouTube videos are so successful at going “viral,” whereas peace, dignity, hearty immune systems, and real art aren’t?

So, the update – big news, great friends, fur coats and ice cream, the perks of idiocy, Philip Glass, and one-eyed dogs.

Part 1: Big news

Jim’s contract was extended until July 31, 2012. For those of you who don’t know, we moved here as economic refugees due to the collapse of the American job market and nauseating greed of U.S. financiers, corporations and politicians, so this is good news. It means we have an income. Now that we know we’ll be here, I can begin looking feverishly for employment.

If I were to traverse the usual trajectory of an economic refugee, I would either scrub strangers’ toilets or spend hours mulching, pruning, raking, and weeding strangers’ yards. Given the state of my own home and my yard back in Virginia, I’d have to falsify recommendations. So, as a lucky “green card” holder, I’ll look instead for editing, writing, and English teaching positions that don’t require fluency in German.  Those of you who, like one friend’s former co-worker, believe in the magic of sending “pink bubbles” of hope into the universe, feel free.

As to where we’ll live, we’re hoping to stay in this apartment, of which I’ve grown fond, but that requires negotiating with our landlady. Staying put would save us considerable angst and euros.

Part 2: Great friends

Vienna Woods
The last two weeks were enlivened by a visit from dear friends from our extraordinary Virginia neighborhood, Joan, Norm, and Marion. The sheer delight of their presence was enhanced by the thrill of being able to speak complete paragraphs in English and be understood.

Because of our winter malaise, we hadn’t explored much of Vienna since the first of the year, so we discovered new venues in the company of old friends.

On a painfully chilly day, we visited the colorful Hundertwasser housing project.  Hundertwasser was a visionary Viennese architect who was  a combination of Frank Lloyd Wright, Timothy Leary, Arlo Guthrie, Willie Wonka and PeeWee Herman (before his arrest), all of which added up to a quirky and inspiring human being. One of his fanciful creations, perhaps the most whimsical waste incinerator in the world, is within walking distance of our apartment and looms in the background depending upon which way we are going.

Hundertwasser magnets

This unusual artist lived a phenomenal life that included sailing if not all seven seas, a whole bunch of them; working with Ralph Nader before Nader became an election foiler, and UC-Berkeley. To read his words quickens the pulse. At least momentarily. But after a while, in perverse irony, the happy-happy itself becomes oppressive.

Among Hundertwasser’s beliefs (promoted in nude lectures he delivered in the 1960s) was that “window apartheid,” a philosophy by which windows on a building are all the same style, should be rejected, and that “each individual window has its own right to life.”  All apartment dwellers, Hundertwasser said, should be allowed to paint whatever they pleased outside their own windows as far as their arms would reach so that everyone in the street would know “that someone lives there who is different from the imprisoned, enslaved, standardized man who lives next door.” I presume he also included women in this manifesto.

Outside a heuriger
In a more traditional vein we lunched at a heuriger in Grinzing (a heuriger is a restaurant allowed to sell its own wine; Grinzing is an area of Vienna), which at this time of year felt more local than touristy.  I don’t think I mentioned before that northwestern Vienna, just before the Vienna Woods, is surprisingly rife with vineyards. 

Inside a heuriger 
Keir and I became well-acquainted with the vineyards shortly after our arrival last summer when we took the wrong bus, got off at the wrong stop, and on an exceptionally hot day staggered about 4 miles to what we hoped was our destination. Our impromptu trek took us on a lonely little lane through acres of vineyards. Whereas earlier in the day we had felt lost, now we felt LOST.

Last week, on our way to show our friends Keir’s school, the Tom-Tom took us to that same tiny lane, where we totally embarrassed ourselves. This time that isolated little lane was crowded with locals out for an early spring Sunday walk, who would stream past us and raise eyebrows at the Kangoo, in which Keir was stashed in the fetal position in the very back. Turns out the all-knowing Tom-Tom wasn’t. The road, seemingly passable, was barricaded at the other end, so Jim was busy trying to reverse while in the midst of gawking walkers and unleashed dogs from both directions and no actual room to maneuver. It was amusing for some of us, not so amusing for the driver. We tried to avoid eye contact with the walkers and considered telling them if they asked that we were Canadians.   One of the “delights” of being a stranger in a new land is that we are a source of humor and superior feelings for the locals.

Vienna from the Vienna Woods
We are now in the company of those U.S. immigrants who make mistakes that become legends. A recently-arrived Korean student in Annandale tried to deposit $5,000 in cash into an ATM, hit the wrong buttons, and the money seemingly vanished. Luckily, an ESL colleague contacted the bank, and financial disaster was averted. A Vietnamese student with no apparent death wish was riding his bicycle on the D.C. beltway within days of his arrival. Fortunately, a kindly patrolman stopped the student (who spoke virtually no English), quickly stashed him and bicycle into the squad car, and delivered them both to a safer location. The student lived to tell the tale in my class -- in English, no less.

Here’s the mystery. We are pretty sure about some of the occasions on which we have amused, irritated, mystified the locals (illegally climbing scaffolding and diving into an open window, for example). But what about all those times of which we are blissfully ignorant? My friend Gillian is convinced there are Viennese bloggers who count on us for their weekly my-aren’t–Americans-stupid updates. And now we have involved good American friends in those observations.

One of the advantages of hosting three Gottliebs with individual passions is that we could split up on occasion. For instance, Jim and Norm, a retired colonel, headed to the Military Museum.

Here’s Jim:

War Museum
Bloodstained Tunic
As with all things in Vienna, getting there is part of the adventure.  Norm and I drove south, parked in a park, and walked to what we thought was the military museum.  Wrong.  We looked at the only other building in the park, and it was flying a massive banner that read: Museum of Revolution.  Sounded good, but the revolution is being renovated, so we'll have to wait. 

Finally we found the military museum after we entered what looked like the campus of West Point.  The central building … the actual museum … was warlike and impressive. 

 Inside it was even more warlike and impressive.  We wandered through centuries of swords and lances and helmets and shields and knives and cannons and pomp and circumstance.  Really something. 

The car in which WWI started 
Then we entered a room with an old, open car – one that would have been considered grand in 1914.  Only after noticing the bullet hole in the car and the portraits on the wall did we realize this was the car in which Archduke Ferdinand and his wife Sophie were assassinated in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914.  Nearby were the clothes the Archduke was wearing, complete with the small bullet hole in his tunic and bloodstains.

Like most Americans, Norm and I had heard the story of the assassination that triggered World War I in history classes when we were young.  It seemed distant in both time and place.  Yet here it was, simple, powerful, demanding silence.  

Norm is a veteran of war.  He was an Army Ranger, a paratrooper who went on to fly attack helicopters in Vietnam.  

Norm and the Tunic 

"You think about how many millions died because of this," he said as we moved to the next exhibit room. 

We passed by a giant painting of a walled Vienna under siege by the Turks in 1683 – the siege that Viennese can't seem to put into the past.  Eventually we made it to the WWII section and the perspective was very different from what you would find in the Smithsonian. 

A black SS uniform highlighted a display of Nazi uniforms and equipment.  Another display was of a box with a mask attached by a tube.  It appeared to be a device to help civilians fend off rumored gas attacks from the Allies.  

The Americans
At one point an old man was leaning against the display, quietly explaining how the box and mask worked to a little girl who I assume was his granddaughter.  One wonders what other memories he has of that terrible time here. 

Equally awful were the Nazi posters.  One has a heroic Nazi soldier fighting against the multi-headed dragon of Jews, capitalists, Bolsheviks, and plutocrats. Another shows Winston Churchill running from a German bomb. 

There was only one small painting of what appeared to be a scene from a concentration camp.  American soldiers were represented only by the bent propeller of a shot-down bomber. 

Again, not the Smithsonian.

A few days later Norm, Keir and I went in search of the massive Flak Towers Hitler had constructed in Vienna in 1944 -- three sets of two arranged in a triangle centered on the Stephansdom Church. 

  The towers, which had big guns on the tops and smaller guns on platforms around the sides, are too massive and too strong to easily tear down (the Russians tried to blow one up … didn't work).  So they stand – 9 to 13 stories tall -- as hideous monuments to Hitler in Vienna.

Flak Tower

In our wanderings we also came across a couple of items of mathematical significance, which we'll mention as we have an accomplished math professor in our family.  The first, in a U-bahn walkway, was a mirrored wall with Pi defined for almost a block.  Another, discovered after wine and bier drinking in Grinzing, is mathematician Kurt Gödel's house.  For those of you who aren't mathematicians, this is the Gödel of the book "Gödel, Escher and Bach."   It was also the house of Karl Seitz, but I'm not sure who he was.

Godel's House

We wandered through the Naschmarkt, an open-air market that runs for several blocks along and over one of Vienna's smaller canals.  Cheese was the focus of our expedition.  

Norm and I also bumped into the Lipizzaner Stallions, quite literally, as we walked by the famous Spanish Riding School in District One.  The horses were being led from the stables to their exercise ring as we happened to walk by.  They really are pretty horses, and a few days later we all went to a training session and watched them dance.  

And then we had the pleasure of watching Joan and Marion dance down the street, arm-in-arm, imitating the Lipizzaners. What happens in Vienna….

Back to Misti: OK. You know how in January all the Americans make resolutions to lose weight and head in droves to the local gyms, where, filled with piety and determination, they huff and puff and then two weeks later they quit? Well, at the beginning of this blog I promised a lot of stuff, but I find myself metaphorically winded (and sobered by Jim’s accounting), so lest I pull a flabby mental muscle, I’m going to end now.

Next time: The women’s activities while the men were studying war; fur coats and ice cream; ongoing idiocy; Philip Glass; and one-eyed dogs. Oh,  and fountains and organs and blossoms and a concert at the Minoriten Kirche (live music, finally!) and book clubs and………

For now, more Hundertwasser philosophy:
Why may a human being not do what he needs to do, like a flower?The colorful, the abundant, the manifold, is always better than mediocre gray and uniformity. Only those who think and live creatively will survive in this life and beyond…
We are in need of magic. I fill a picture until it is full with magic, as one fills up a glass with water.

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