Monday, April 25, 2011

Of Steps, Knights and a Bespectacled Cow

Bright sun, mild breezes, a creepy movie, St. Augustin's fire, great Slovakian musicians, and the same Hare Krishna guys I saw in the LA airport in 1968.  This week it is my turn to write, and as we've just rambled around the past few days, I'll do the same in this blog.

The Steps
I'll start with the Strudlhof Steps. In our various comings and goings, we use these steps a lot.  They take us from up where we are on Währingerstrasse down to the Lichtenstein Museum, the gym Keir and I use, the French office supply store and other places in lower District 9.  We've always admired them as impressive steps, with two distinctive fountains, working their way left and right up the hill.  The image at the top is one of the fountains.  The other is below.

Steps Fountain
Then we discovered, thanks to a book by Duncan J. D. Smith, our audio tour guide many blogs ago, that these steps are "a lovely example of Viennese Art Nouveau" and inspired highly-acclaimed Austrian writer Fran Karl Heimito von Doderer to write his novel, The Strudlhof Steps.  It brought him "sudden and lasting success" in 1951 and got him past the career difficulties he was having because of his time in the Nazi party, which he said he joined so he would be allowed to write.  He went to the Russian front and ended up in a prisoner of war camp in Norway.

The word on von Doderer is that he really wasn't much of a Nazi in spirit.  I can understand that as both of my grandfathers were in the Ku Klux Klan in Michigan.  One was stunningly racist (he once yelled at my mother because she was watching Louie Armstrong on TV), and the other, a gentle, sweet grandfather, joined because it was the only way he could get a job at the Fisher Body plant in Pontiac.  I don't think he ever went to a meeting.

So one has to be a little careful in judging such things … but only a little.

Atlas & Egg
We walked by the Easter egg market, which is still going strong, but resisted the eggs.  They did have a great Easter Bunny sign up, and we'll include that as our nod to Easter.  That and a rather odd statue of an Atlas guy with a turned wrist, holding what appears to be an egg.  I'm sure there is a story, we just don't know what it is.

We resumed Duncan Smith's audio tour but only got to the site of the slaughter of the last of the Knights Templar in this part of Europe.  The Knights Templar were the elite fighting unit of the Crusades – the men who wore the white tunics with the red crosses on the front.  After the crusades, they existed in groups across Europe, but primarily in France.  They weren't subject to local rule and eventually the European nobility grew afraid of them and, in 1307 (on Friday the 13th) King Phillip IV of France ordered the remaining knights arrested.

Mark of the Templar 
In Vienna, the knights had an enclave that involved a warren of passageways.  They didn't like the notion of arrest and torture, so they battled those who came to get them.  The street where their enclave was located is now called "Blutgasse" because the narrow street flowed with blood that day.


Misti and I sat and had coffee on Blutgasse, and I looked down to where the fighting took place and tried to imagine the sight and sound of dozens of men, swords swinging, cutting each other apart on the cobblestones.
Templar Image

Around the corner is the small church of the Knights Templar, and it has an impressive array of shields on the wall -- and some rather grim images.

After the knights, we found ourselves at the big cathedral, Stephansdom, along with what seemed like a few million tourists.  We've had the city to ourselves a bit over the past few months of cold and wet, so it was surprising, interesting, and annoying to suddenly see the streets filled with people.


We circled Stephansdom in search of an "O5" that was etched into one of its stones by the small Austrian resistance during World War II.  The "O5" was significant, but as we didn't find it, I'll save that for later.  What we did find were lots of small images of death all around the cathedral that were similar to those in the Knights Templar church.

Duncan Smith led us to one other odd treasure.  As seen here, it is a wall painting in the middle of District One of a bespectacled cow playing backgammon with a wolf.  It is an old painting that, according to Smith, apparently represents tension between Protestants and Catholics.  Which animal represents which religion we'll leave to you.

Wolf and Cow

One of the benefits of tourist season is the return of the fascinating array of street entertainment.  As we left Stephansdom, we came upon a group of Slovakian musicians who were very good.  An oversized hammer dulcimer, violin, bass, viola … all played with abandon.  And they could sing. 

 As they reached the emotional peak of a particularly intense and fast piece, there suddenly was an out-of-place rhythm, punctuated by bells.


We turned to see the Hare Krishnas moving toward us along the Graben.  Same off- orange clothes, same song, and I swear, the same people I saw moving through LAX in my youth.  I wondered where they've been.  They moved as quickly as they used to, so soon the crowed refocused on the musicians.  We've seen the Slovakian musicians  before and next time I'll buy their CD and maybe include an audio file.

We then danced over to Vienna's Film Museum, where we met Keir and watched a screening, in English with German subtitles, of the 1997 film "Affliction" with Nick Nolte, Sissy Spacek and James Coburn.  Bleak. We walked toward home contemplating a son killing and burning his father.

And at that point, we came into the plaza in front of St. Augustin, a 14th century church that served the Habsburg dynasty.  Priests in vestments surrounded a small open fire in the plaza.  They prayed, lit a giant candle from the fire, then led a group of worshipers into the church for what I think was going to be a candlelight service.

This morning Misti and I went to the Easter service there.  It is an intriquing church because it is part of a larger palace and you really can't tell it is there.  You go through an entryway and suddenly you are inside an enormous cathedral.

Fiaker Horses
It was packed, and the huge volume of St. Augustin was hazy with incense.  A full choir sang and a wonderful orchestra played.  The program didn't identify them.  What struck me was that despite it being Easter, there was nothing about the congregation that marked this day as special. While some men wore coats and ties, there was very little in the way of dressing up.  No Easter hats, fancy dresses, or men in suits … they apparently don't do that here.  Indeed, the tourists who entered the back of the church during the service were only a little under dressed. 

After visiting the church this morning we sat in the sun, Misti with a mélange and me with a cappuccino mit schlagobers.  We shared an apfel strudel and watched the fiakers pass by with their passengers, and observed tourists from all over the world check maps and snap photos of each other in front of complicated statuary.

Must be Spring. 

Monday, April 18, 2011

The Colors of Vienna

If Paris and Miami had a love child, its name would be Vienna.

This is Sunday, Vienna Marathon day. I doubt there’s a more scenic route as the participants will trot en masse across the Danube, jog to the Prater, circle the Ring a time or two, make their way to the Schonbrunn, and then stagger back to Vienna’s historic core.

Classic Colors

Blue Sky
Did I mention that the sky is true blue today? Vienna’s weather can be a bit dreary, but the trade-off is the spring sky. I’m amazed at how elevation, topography, and the seasonal tilt of the Earth influence light.
The sunlight on the Dakota prairie is a distant cousin to the sunlight dappling a stand of Virginia woods. Even more than 20 years later, I can close my eyes and see the eerie mystical hue of the afternoon sun on Incan ruins high in the Andes. There must be a word for that color, but I don’t know it.
That the Blue Danube is a puzzling misnomer is well known, but if this is the kind of sky that reflected in a once-pristine river, the mystery is solved.

Our Neighborhood
Today I envision runners who are first-time visitors to this city, at about mile 10 or so, losing their concentration and their form, and simply stopping, mouths agape, dazzled by the sunshine dancing off stone lions and goddesses, fountains and cobblestones -- and blondes.

The similarity to Paris is obvious; what evokes Miami is color.  The water-color shades of now sun-bathed buildings are reminiscent of Miami’s tropical tints. The scaffolding has finally been removed from the front of our building, and, voila… our new yellow building. Maybe not quite South Beach, but….

Our Building
Given the Austrian propensity for regulations, we wonder what the color scheme rules might be. At the very least, I hope the permits are printed on pastel paper.

Still Our Neighborhood
Weeks ago, when our Virginia friends were here, they were lucky enough to enjoy a bit of 
spring sunshine. When the chill returned, we headed indoors. For me, a highlight was visiting the Leopold Museum with Marion, an insightful college freshman studying art history, who is fascinated by all things Art Nouveau.

Klimt eggs for Marion
I learned so much from Marion. Sometimes I watched from a distance as she read a canvas or lingered in front of a particular painting. Watching people engage with art is like scanning someone’s bookshelves for authors or riffling through a piano bench to check out someone’s repertoire – secrets revealed, character illuminated.

I’ve mentioned before what a joy it is to have adult children who enlarge our world with their own interests, experiences, and passions. Whether it be through enjoying Will and Erin’s reverence for first editions,  Dyl’s delight in zombies and horror films, or Reeve and Melanie’s fascination with artist William Kentridge, our cultural and intellectual lives expand through theirs.
Experiencing art with Marion reminded me of the need to keep inquisitive young people, not just our own children, present in our older lives.

Just being with Joan for hours was heaven, but our walk together in the Vienna Woods was, for me, bittersweet. 

Our neighborhood in Virginia is only 10 miles from downtown D.C., but it is edged by acres of woods through which Joan and I have logged many miles and many volumes  of conversation (well, sometimes more like monologues – thank you, Joan). Joan, with her embracing of the ephemeral, introduced me to exquisite trout lilies that you can truly appreciate only if you slow down and bend close. Every spring for several years now, we’ve noted their appearance.

It’s in those woods that Chase, our German shepherd, once bolted, knocking Joan – who doesn’t even like dogs -- to the ground so hard she curled up in the fetal position trying simultaneously to breathe and reassure me that she was fine.  She didn’t banish Chase.  She did tape her ribs.

With Joan, I can say, “Remember that day we saw that amazing iridescent skink with the blue tail? And that other day when we were looking at brilliant yellow wild poppies mixed with those delicate blue flowers I can’t remember the name of?" And I know she knows not only the common name but the Latin one as well.

She’s the only one who shares a memory of that day at Green Spring when we began conversing with an Iraqi man sitting on a bench. We heard about his flight from Iraq and about bullet holes in his Bethesda windows.  He explained how his Filipino wife made him move with her to the Philippines after George Bush won his second presidential election because she couldn’t “live in a country filled with the kind of people who would vote for that man twice.”  He cried when he talked of his love of the U.S.

Months ago I wrote about how much I missed my possessions, now packed away in various nooks and crannies in Virginia.  I rarely miss them any more. Now what I miss most is shared history – that ability to say to friends, “Remember the time….” And they do.

Which brings me back to Miami.

Reeve spent an eventful decade there before moving to Arles, France with his French wife. 
Reeve, Misti - 2003

 Last month when he turned 30, Melanie organized a three-week trip for him to Florida to work, to create,  to indulge, to revisit memories. The last week of the trip, this amazing woman and baby Ocean endured a panic-stricken journey through red-tape boondoggles to join him.

Melanie, Reeve -- Miami

The highlight was a surprise party she had organized for him, which included his dad and dear friends who had traveled long distances to be there,  as well as the Miami contingent.

When I talked to Reeve after he returned to Europe, the rejuvenation was evident in his voice. He had basked in his history surrounded by people he loves.

The life of an expat is exhilarating and challenging and sounds really romantic. Maybe it’s different for much younger people, but for me at my age, nothing could have prepared me for being unloosed from my moorings of work and friendship and routine in this way. 
Think Small
Of course, what make it easier are the amusing sights that surround us.  Yesterday Jim and I wandered into parts of Districts 7 and 8 that I had explored on my own earlier in the week. We found humor on the street:
We even found essence of Miami, if not Miami, in an art gallery called Inoperable with a show: The Art Of Skateboarding. 

We talked at length with the friendly manager whose parents are French and Tibetan but who was born in Vienna. Among what we had in common was knowledge about Miami’s Art Basel, which we wouldn’t have known as much about without Reeve’s Miami life.

KKK -- Really?

Instead of the shared history we have with our friends – dark times, celebrations, and simple moments on simple days -- here the connections come in snippets, ephemeral like the trout lilies.
Last week we passed a man and young boy with their dog in the First District. If people with dogs look at all friendly, I say, “Darf ich?” which I hope means “May I?” and since I can’t remember the word for “pet,” I motion to the dog. I was petting the dog and asked if the man knew English. He did. I explained that we had left our beloved dog behind in Virginia and that we were suffering from “dog hunger.” He grinned, and simply said, “Eat.” 
He has no idea that that moment will be among my favorite Vienna memories, and I’ll never see him again. 

So, the marathon is long over, and I suspect the city is filled with people nursing blisters and strained muscles, eating Sachertorte and drinking heartily with old friends and new.  And a year from now, they might meet again, and say, "Remember that day...."

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Ein Ei für ein Ei

April 3, 2011

It’s springtime in Vienna (and it’s a pity that the song “Springtime for Hitler” from the movie “The Producers” is playing in my head), and the Viennese are indulging  their endearing pet passions: a love of ice cream and the outdoors.

Spring in Vienna
Ice Cream Line 
When we arrived at the end of July last year, it was miserably hot, and we quickly noticed these unusually long lines on certain sidewalks, whether in the village of Laxenburg or in Vienna. When we investigated, the explanation was unexpected: the lines were out the door and down the block in front of any ice cream and/or gelato salon. Everyone was indulging. Day after day after day. We chalked it up to the late summer heat but now realize that wasn’t the entire explanation.

This is our first spring in Vienna, and the moment hints of spring appeared, the outside cafes sprang to life, leading to a remarkable sight. It was still chilly a couple of weeks ago, and on the Graben in the First District, we stared in delight as women bundled in full-length fur coats and winter boots sat in outdoor cafes licking ice cream cones. 

Ice Cream Goddesses 

Today it was absolutely gorgeous shirt-sleeve and sandals weather, and Jim and I wandered for hours, first in the Ninth District, and then in the First, where the streets were bright with the colors of every flavor of ice cream imaginable being savored by young and old, denizens and tourists; even dogs and babies in strollers were in ice cream heaven. Our shared dish of basic vanilla and chocolate ice cream, boring as it might have been, counted as our baptism into Austrian ice cream indulgence.

April 10, 2011

Easter Market 
How did this happen? Now it’s a week later and one would think that time is flying because we’re just having so much fun. Not necessarily so. It’s one of those days when I simply can’t think or write, so despite my earlier promises, Jim’s the blogger of the day:

I read in the Austrian Times, an online tabloid in English, that a little market square in the First District was going to have a stack of 4,000 Easter eggs … setting the record for Europe.  It is becoming clear that Austrians love holidays.  Eggs are everywhere and, apparently, it isn't enough just to have eggs; you've got to have more than the rest of the European Union (the U.S. apparently doesn't count).

Agate Eggs
So, on the glorious day Misti mentioned, we headed for that market and, while I didn't find the promised mountain of eggs (there are still a couple of weeks to go, so it may happen), eggs of every size, hue, pattern and texture were hanging from various displays or tumbled together in bins.  And all of those Christmas Markets we visited and wrote about … they're back as Easter Markets.  Squares are filled with little houses from which everything Easter is being sold. 

We even came across a table where a guy was selling an antique cannon and very old artificial limbs -- literally an arm and a leg.  And right next to them was a little basket of Easter eggs.

More Eggs 
Vienna is known for miniatures … small bronzes of everything from famous people to dancing frogs.  Misti bought me a beautiful one for Christmas.  We walked by our favorite antique miniature store yesterday and -- surprise, surprise -- there were lots of little bunnies. In one display, the bunnies were sitting at desks, learning arithmetic.
Bunnies learning math 

As we haven't got anything profound to say this time out, I'm including some images Keiran has taken on his photo excursions around Vienna.  He likes shooting people and architecture in black and white, and here are some random samples of people around town.  The fisheye image is the Votive Kirche from the underground tram stop we use several times a week.


Market Closing
Book Buyer
Votive Kirche
We neglected to tell you in the last blog what the top image was.  We still won't, because we don't know exactly, but it is what remains of a painting on a wall inside a church in the First District. If I recall correctly, it dates back to about 1300.  I'll get more details next time we're near there. 

And today's top image is one we have walked by scores of times and never really noticed.  There is a building on our way downtown that has lilacs blooming out front and an inlaid arch around the rather normal looking doors.  The image at the top is just one section of the inlay.