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.

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