Sunday, May 22, 2011

Nudes, Rubes, and All That Jazz

A Viennese mélange for me, a prosecco for Misti, a bier for me, wasser mit gas for Misti, a little jazz, authentic Austrian food with friends, and more wandering through the streets of Vienna.  This expat stuff can be challenging.

We got culture this week of my favorite kinds – jazz and photography.

We discovered last week that Stacey Kent, my favorite jazz singer, was going to be in town Wednesday night for one show.  We grabbed tickets and enjoyed two sets plus three ovations in a small, cool Vienna jazz club called Porgy and Bess.  She sings in English, French and Portuguese.  You can watch a little French number at her website.

Stacey Kent
Misspent Youth (12 string is me) 
Many years ago I was in a semi-serious rock band and I spent most of my youth immersed in rock and roll.  As I aged, I evolved.  There was some point in my 40s when I was listening to a jazz album and a light went on … I got it.  So now my iPod is mostly jazz and of that, a lot of Stacey Kent.  If you liked the French song, you can watch an engaging video of Kent singing Waters of March with Suzanne Vega.    

So it was a good Wednesday night in Vienna.

On Monday night we were invited by a young American colleague at work to join her and her Austrian husband for dinner at Reinthalers Beisl, a real Austrian restaurant.  We did.  I ate a cliché … bratwurst and sauerkraut … but it was very good. 

Reinthalers Beisl
The Austrian, Stefan, is from Vienna and we learned more about the history and culture of the city, especially the 70s and 80s, when Vienna was confused about its identity. Those stories will be woven into a blog Misti is working on about the deeper, darker nature of this city.

Misti has mentioned several times the remarkable rudeness of many Viennese, and if anything she is being polite in her descriptions.  With that in mind, I will reveal my satisfying, revenge-filled shopping experience at the small Billa grocery store yesterday.  Keir and I rolled our cart toward the cashier and as we did so, a rather stout woman and her teenage son came at the cashier from a different angle.  She pushed by us and blocked our way.  She gave us the typical Viennese glare and then showed satisfaction when I had to circle my cart around behind hers.

It was crowded, and the line was long.  We inched forward.  Then another cashier suddenly appeared, opened a new register, and said, "Nächste." The stout woman moved, but I was schneller.  I moved left (remember, carts here roll sideways as well as forward and back) then jammed my cart ahead and blocked her path. She tried to push through, but not a chance.  She eventually had to circle around the candy stand, move down the milk lane, and get behind me.

I left the store pumping my fist.  I'd won the Battle at the Billa.  Keir appreciated the victory, but thought I was overreacting.
Photography Exhibit

Today Misti and I went to the Wien Musem to see a wonderful show of photographs by Trude Fleischmann, a Viennese photographer who broke the gender barrier in the 1920s as she photographed Vienna's artists and intellectuals.  As she and a few other female photographers opened studios, one Austrian complained that "harlotry had come to photography." 

Fleischmann's Work

Fleischmann's work … her nudes of dancers and a very familiar photo of Einstein … is engrossing.  The nude in the photo used as the poster for the exhibit is one of a series of nude dancers Fleischmann photographed in the 20s and early 30s.  It was, of course, scandalous. 

She was Jewish and had to flee Vienna and the Nazis in 1938 and settled in New York.  She became an American citizen and worked as a photographer until she died in 1990, at age 95.  She later described Vienna as "not very well behaved" during the Nazi era.

Early Tank
Two Women
Which brings us to the rest of the Wien museum.  This is the city's museum, with objects dating back to Roman times and a rich treasure of objects from 1300 on.  I've included some of the more interesting ones, including the top image of the keyless trumpets from Vienna, all dating to the 1600 or 1700s.

But just about the time we get to the mid-1930s, the exhibits end.  There is one small black and white picture of Stephansdom, the massive central cathedral, with a Nazi banner hanging on it. You have to look hard to see it.  There is also a painting of the cathedral in flames, which happened after Hitler decided to defend Vienna against the Russians by putting artillery all around the cathedral.  The Russians fired back, and the Cathedral went up in flames (the walls and central spire survived).

Vienna Circa 1930
Funeral Helmets

Other than that, unless we missed a wing, WWII and the dark ages of the 1940s left no trace.

As we wandered back through District One, Misti wanted to step into a small church where there are catacombs and where various organs of assorted esteemed people are supposedly stored.  We stepped in and were treated to a wonderful song by an accomplished choir of young people.

Choir Practice 

We'll return to search for the body parts another time.

Earlier in our walk we stopped at a little outdoor restaurant for water and coffee and were served by a Viennese woman (Daniella) who is a hair dresser by training, who is looking for a job in the tourist industry like the one she had in Turkey when she was there with her half-Turkish husband, who is a freelance 3-D computer artist who has a gig in Sweden.  Her English is good, as is her Turkish, and she can handle Russians as long as they don't all speak at once when they are ordering.  Her husband is good in Turkish, German and French.

Austrian Colors
We did see a classic old Citroen 2CV from the late 40s or early 50s, maybe.  It was worth a picture.
Rube in Vienna

It's really easy to feel like a rube in this town, particularly with my scant German skills.   At least we're not rude . . . mostly.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Of Horses, Mostly

On certain days, especially wet days, the entrance hall of our apartment building smells like a stable – the earthy odor not of horses but of stale hay.  During the day, as we sprint up the 50 plus stairs (sprint is such a lovely word – it sounds so much better than drag our sorry asses), the scents of sauerkraut, fried onions and sausages frequently waft from other apartments and mingle with the smell of garlic from the Italian restaurant below.

Sorry Ass Steps
Neither Jim nor I have particularly keen senses of smell, which is fortunate because cleaning house, which bores us both to tears, is something we do less frequently than we should. And as we age, we find the tedium of repetitious tasks increasingly odious. Keir told us recently that his friend Alex described our home in Virginia as smelling of coffee and German shepherd.  But we love coffee and Chase, so why shouldn’t our home be filled with the smells of what we love? And those other smells, well…. I think Alex should apply for the diplomatic corps.

The point is that scent is connected to memory. Whenever I smell bus fumes, I think of Berlin.  The smell of Artesian well water  takes me to my Grandma Jenny.  Radishes?  My mother’s garden on Polk Street.

When the lilacs in Vienna were in bloom, I buried my nose in the blossoms. Lilacs always remind me of third grade, the happiest school year of my life.  I was enchanted by pretty, petite Miss Burke. Every child should have at least one Miss Burke.

The north wall of the classroom boasted huge windows that actually opened, so in the spring when the lilac bushes that nestled up against the panes were in full bloom, the air was suffused with the scent of lilacs.  Miss Burke read a chapter of a book to us every day. I remember a story about a blind girl and another about Navajo Indians and hogans and sand paintings and turquoise, or maybe it was one book about a blind Navajo girl. Listening to Miss Burke’s sweet voice took me to exotic lives and places not only in the spring when the open windows  invited the perfume of lilacs, but in the winter when the windows  were tightly closed and the lilac bushes, now scentless, were buried in blizzard snow, waiting.  Lilacs, Miss Burke, windows,  books. Heaven.

Now here’s the place where it would be so nice to tell you that the Viennese air is still redolent with the perfumes and pomades of the Hapsburg aristocrats or that the ubiquitous and delicious Apfelstrudel with whipped cream (Schlagobers) has a distinctive smell that covers up the scent of manure from the horses pulling Fiakers (elegant carriages). Sorry. A commonplace, lingering scent of Vienna? Cigarette smoke. Young, middle-aged and old, the Viennese, like so many Europeans, smoke like proverbial fiends.

Our Indulgence 
This is more of a problem in the older cafes, such as the one just down the block from us. We’ll never eat there because of the smoke, and now that the tables are out on the sidewalk, we not only smell potatoes and brats as we walk by, awakening our appetites, we inhale smoke, momentarily curbing any desire to eat. This would be an excellent weight-loss program except that we usually pass through this smoke cloud on our way to buy ice cream at our local Eis Salon. 

 Actually, the Viennese officials are working hard to move into a new world in which cigarette  smoking is banned in public arenas, and many restaurants comply with at least a nod to smoking/non-smoking areas. But the difficulty of their task was underscored when I had my first experience of a Viennese hospital.

 My dear friend, Gillian, has multiple sclerosis, which is usually kept in check, but last week, she experienced symptoms of a relapse. This necessitated her going to the hospital and facing the possibility of IV-administered steroids, so I went along to keep her company. The hospital, run by the Brothers of Mercy, was a pleasant enough place given its purpose, and Gillian’s neurologist is a 35-year-old woman with a warm and compassionate demeanor. This neurologist has given Gillian, who is much younger than I am, one of her first experiences of the-doctor-is-younger-than-me  moments. Those of you in my age group can probably remember your own initiation into that world. I was initially horrified by the youthfulness of doctors; now I’m comforted by the thought that young doctors have brains that function like well-oiled machines (Mercedes) unlike my rusty brain that works in fits and starts (jalopy).

The Krankenhaus
Kranken Saint  
We needed to wait for test results, so we headed to the hospital café, where we had to pass through a smoke-filled room to get to the counter to order our coffee and tea. As we waited, we noticed the rows of cigarette packs immediately behind the cashier. Gillian counted more than 20 brands. Two brands of beer were also available.  So, at 10:30 in the morning, we sat outside the hospital café sharing the fresh air with people enjoying cigarettes and beer sold by this health institution.

 The news was encouraging, for the most part. Some of Gillian’s symptoms might have been caused by a viral infection, so the steroids were postponed.

 And then the bad news.  Due to a change in employment, Gillian and her husband will be returning to Glasgow in two weeks rather than staying in Vienna for another year. I’ve known Gillian only since last fall, but I will feel the loss of her presence deeply. She’s the    only person I’ve ever heard use the words “tyrants and harridans” in a conversation.  Another downside to ex-pat life: people go home.

Not Real
 Writing about Gillian saddened me, so Jim and I headed out on this dreary, rainy, chilly day for diversion. We drove around the Second District and passed 
Prater, a famous amusement park we hope to explore soon, and in the process, came across a mosaic, sections of which are pictured at the top and other places in this post. The building it’s on is the word nondescript made manifest (and that’s being kind), but it’s enlivened by these whimsical pictures of Prater highlighting two of the most famous rides: the Riesenrad, made famous in the movie The Third Man and the suicide swings (not the real name) in which, according to Gillian, people sit in little plastic chairs held in only by a couple of flimsy chains. 

Swing in Mosaic
This is not your typical swing ride. These foolhardy swingers are taken into the stratosphere. If you pass out or slip, you die.  No surprise in the city in which the phrase “death wish” was coined.

Swing in Backgroud
Artist Credit
One of the advantages  of living in a new city is your retinas haven’t been dulled by day-to-day familiarity and you don’t yet take visuals for granted. 

Today on Währingerstrasse, Jim and I noticed what I guess could be called a stele nestled between a clothing store and a bank. Why it’s in that particular location is unknown to us, but it’s not every day in Fairfax County that you come upon an early 17th century religious icon on the sidewalk.

Six Grey Horses 
 My advice to visitors to Vienna is to strengthen your neck muscles before you come because when you look up, there’s bound to be some intriguing decorative feature on almost any building be it a naked little troll or the head of a grimacing monster. Just down the street, a building I walk by several times a week is graced with six undulating horses that might or might not be related to a legend having to do with pussy willows, which have some deep religious significance here.
Horse Butcher Past
Speaking of horses, there’s an old abandoned building wedged between businesses a few blocks away with words that translate to “horse butcher.” The building somehow seemed so much more charming before we translated the words. That establishment is no longer used for said purpose, but somewhere are others that are.

. . . and Present 
I’ve noticed recently that horse meat is on the menu of a few Würstel stands and horse meat loaf is also available just up the street.   I’m of the eat-what- you-want  school (with the exception of cannibalism unless I'm ever snowed in at Donner's Pass), but I could never bring myself to eat  animals I’ve nuzzled nose to nose – horses, cats, dogs, white rats, rabbits, or guinea pigs.  I’m undecided on the whole issue of insects.

So, here we are on another Sunday night in Vienna looking toward another week of work, for Jim, school, for Keir, and trailing spousehood for me.  Sigh. But I do have things to look forward to: a traditional Austrian dinner tomorrow night, an American jazz singer singing her French repertoire in an Austrian jazz club named after an American musical (Porgy and Bess) on Wednesday, and an American movie with British actors in a Viennese theater named after a classical musician on the weekend with my dear Scottish friend. I think I'll go to bed happy.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

On Becoming Viennese

Lest you think we spend most of our time traipsing around like tourists, this is a reminder that we are, in fact, Vienna residents (that's us in the top image, fitting in), and as such, we need to become more acquainted with civic issues. However, that requires knowing the language…. and therein lies the rub.

I’m working diligently not so much on speaking German but reading it.  Of all the significant losses of an expat, for me, a voracious reader since I was a wee girl, losing the ability to read is among the most distressing.

I’m trying to remedy this by increasing my German vocabulary to 3,000 to 4,000 words by summer.  If I remember correctly, for an ESL speaker in the U.S., a vocabulary of about 2,000 to 3,000 words is needed simply to survive and function in American culture. Americans without a high school diploma are estimated to have a vocabulary of roughly 5,000 words; high school graduates, 10,000 words, and college graduates from 20,000 to 60,000 words depending on their field of study. If I had to guess at my current reading German vocabulary, including the most basic words such as ja and nein, I’d put it at around 1,500.

I buy children’s books. Imagine the mortification of buying books written for 8-year-olds and not pretending they’re “for the grandchildren.” I jot down words I see on the street and from the tram trying all the while to look inconspicuous. Anyone who has seen the amazing and troubling German movie “The Lives of Others” might be able to relate to being wary despite that movie being set in East Berlin not Vienna. One of Jim’s associates calls the Viennese “curtain peekers” because of their supposed proclivity for turning in suspicious people to the authorities. I write quickly and don’t dally. OK, a slight exaggeration.
Find the Lowe

Also, I test myself by stopping in front of bookstore windows to see how many titles I can decipher.

This week, the word “Löwe” was on both an adult book and a children’s book in a window, and the only visual clue was a Garfieldesque cat. I gave up. I went into the store, and in German, I explained my bewilderment  to the clerk. She understood me until I spelled the word. She looked at me blankly. As Keir would say, epic failure.  But once I wrote it down, she said: “lion.” So, now I have one more word I won’t forget because of its association.

Every week  I look forward to reading the free district newspaper,  of which I can now understand about 30 to 40 percent of the words depending on the topic. That doesn’t necessarily mean I understand the sentences. I already have my favorite parts of the newspaper: the animal column and the question of the week . Sample: Which famous people should be in the new Madame Tussauds wax museum in Vienna? Of the six on-the-street respondents, three favored non-Austrians: Heath Ledger, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Brigitte Bardot. Hmm.

By reading the local newspaper I’m in-the-know about critical local issues.  Foremost, dog poop. Honestly. One of the oddities about Vienna is the considerable amount of dog poop on city sidewalks. This is a city that loves dogs. In fact, dogs are welcome  in many of the restaurants, and it’s common to see a Wiener walking down the street with large unleashed dogs simply following obediently behind. Most dogs here are remarkably well-trained. Unfortunately, they still poop.

The city officials launched a unique and controversial campaign to get dog owners to clean up after their mutts.  I don’t think we’ve mentioned it before, but a Viennese is credited for inventing the snow globe, and the original snow globe factory is still open for tours. Now usually the snow globes feature angels or dancers or Vienna sights or the Nativity, or in the case of U.S. presidents: his ranch for Reagan, Inauguration confetti for Clinton, and the First Family and First Dog for Obama. In this ad, however, the traditional snow globe encases simulated dog poop.

Now, if I read it correctly, the city official responsible for this innovative  ad is from the Green Party, and members of the other parties called for her resignation for an “unnecessarily provocative” and “disgusting” ad. Tempers flared.

We intended to get a picture of the huge poster featuring this unique snow globe (many people at first thought it was a cupcake inside…) that was posted outside the elegant Lichtenstein Museum, but it seems to have disappeared.  Apparently, that particular ad campaign was short-lived. We did find an image of the poster on the web and here it is: 
Snow Globe Controversy

Most everyone agrees that dog owners ought to pick up the dog poop, but many of the people walking dogs are elderly. I love it that everyone walks here, including older men and women, often with canes, walking slowly beside their old and decrepit dogs. I don’t think these dog walkers are physically able to bend over to deal with the problem. So, dilemma.

I’ve also learned about the need for more foster parents for neglected and abused children and efforts to raise the Viennese students’ reading scores.  Sound familiar? In addition, I now worry about the blind woodpecker,  Baba, and the epileptic Shih Tzu, Smokey, who both need loving homes, and about Vienna’s rabbits who are succumbing to an insidious infection.
Baba & Friends

This week another controversy brewed. A famous and beloved Austrian entertainer, Peter Alexander – a singer, actor, and personality ala Bing Crosby, died in February. One district official pushed through a proposal that an intersection or roundabout in the 19th   District be named after the entertainer.  A nice idea? Apparently not. Again the city council met, and the Greens, if I read it correctly, stomped out of the meeting.  It seems that this suggestion was both premature and irreverent because the district official didn’t wait until after the Trauerjahr (year of mourning; also called the Pietätsfrist). And it appears the other parties had colluded and excluded the Greens and the Social Democrats from their discussions. The final decision now rests with the cultural commission.

Local politicians are a rather lively bunch, which is probably how it should be.

By reading the local newspaper,  I had this marvelous “I know her!” moment. Months ago I wrote about the Irish/Austrian woman who runs the hardware store, and whom I was using as one of my first guerilla tutors. I haven’t been back for months primarily because I’m embarrassed that my German is still awful. But, I opened the paper, and there she was – featured in an article about how the older businesses in the district are struggling.

My hope is that as my reading improves so will my understanding of this city. For instance, last week, Jim and I left our apartment one afternoon and discovered that three fire trucks,  an ambulance, and two police cars were on the street right outside the door. Fire hoses were  strewn about and smoke was in the air. An apartment in the next building, which is connected to our building, was on fire.

No sirens. We imagine that had we been in danger, someone might have warned us, but very, very quietly.  Keir got a couple of pictures:
No Sirens 

Emergency vehicles use their sirens judiciously. This concern with noise pollution is admirable but often irrational. I once almost got run over by an ambulance. I was crossing a small one-way lane on the edge of a complicated traffic pattern. I had a green light, and I had checked for oncoming traffic to the right. I stepped out and a sirenless ambulance going the wrong way nearly squashed me. Someone told Jim that the sirens are only used in real emergencies, such as someone dying. So, any time I hear a siren I assume it’s a pedestrian hit by an ambulance who is now dying in the very vehicle that ran him down.

By comparison Americans seem overly dramatic to me. Sirens for everything, SWAT teams, high speed chases that endanger multiple lives, noise, noise, noise. Oh, the Hollywoodesque drama of it all.

Surely, the sensible approach would be somewhere between  these extremes.

Not everyone in Vienna respects the silence. The other day I heard someone lay on a car horn in such rage that in the U.S. one might expect shots to follow. I looked out the window and saw that the traffic was terribly jammed up due to construction down the road.  One driver was conscientious and hadn’t blocked the intersection. Even the tram beside him was stopped so cross traffic could continue.  Suddenly, from a car two cars behind this responsible driver, the person whose horn blowing had failed to persuade him jumped out of her car, stomped up to the guy’s window,  and screamed at him. I mean, really screamed at him. Then she stomped back. The driver didn’t move because he couldn’t.  Eventually the traffic advanced and the woman tore off in anger.

Did I mention she was good looking, well-dressed, and driving a very expensive car? Seems like those People Who Are Just More Important Than Everyone Else exist everywhere. Sigh.

While I’m mired in news pages and children’s stories, Jim is making his own distinctive progress:

My progress is limited … and that is being kind.  Only one of the people I work directly with is Austrian, and her English is better than mine.  However, almost every day I stop in ADEG, Laxenburg's only grocery store.  After a couple of months of trying my bad German in ordering my daily sandwich – Ein Semmel mit Sauna-Schinken und chili Käse, bitte (that's ham and cheese on a roll) – I learned to shorten it to "das üblichen."  That means "the usual."  So, to change my order I have to learn new German.

Despite my failure, I received a promotion at ADEG.  I was recently informed by Rosa, the manager, that I was no longer considered a "Sie," but would henceforth be referred to as a "du." This is a big deal.   In Austria, "du" is informal, only used among friends, and in this reserved society the switch from "Sie" to "du" isn't easily achieved.

While Misti works incredibly hard on her German, and Keir is doing well in his Deutsch class at school, my "formal" training is mostly ADEG and Rosetta Stone.  Rosetta Stone is good, but you have to do it regularly and take seriously their suggestion that you also study other material – which I don't.
Band Meets Tram

Morning Parade
As for an events update, today is May Day, and that means political parades for workers.  We awoke this morning to the sound of a marching band coming down Währingerstrasse.  The band was excellent, and in step as they marched amid a small group of left-leaning folks carrying signs and trying not to get hit by the trams.  The banners were a little difficult to read, but one sign read, "The greed of the capitalist is our downfall."

Syrian Rally
Later, after lunch with a friend in an Italian restaurant in District One, we came upon a rally against the brutal crackdown on protesters in Syria.  The Syrian protesters were intense, the images on their posters graphic. 

We left District One and were heading home when we came upon a Communist Party rally in Sigmund Freud Park.  A rock band played "Gimme Some Lovin," an old Spencer Davis Group/Steve Winwood tune.  The band was good – they made an effortless transition from "Gimme Some Lovin" to "Birdland," the Weather Report tune made famous by Manhattan Transfer. 
Marx & Winwood

And, in the six degrees of separation category, the dad of my daughter Erin's neighborhood friend when she was growing up in Minneapolis was the drummer for Weather Report and may have been playing on the CD the band in Sigmund Freud Park used to learn the song.  Small world.  But I digress. 

Given the small size of the crowd, I don't think the Communists in Vienna pose much of a threat to the capitalists.  The Green Party is on the rise here, however, and we're all for that.

So, das is alles für diese Woche.  Tschüss!