Sunday, June 26, 2011

Time and Travel

Time flies like an arrow, fruit flies like a banana.
 -Groucho Marx

Jim and I were talking about the relentlessness of time, about how it passes more and more quickly the older one gets and perfectly reflects the universe’s utter indifference to the human condition, and I wanted to say something wise (after all, I am now 58 years old; you’d think I might have learned something after living more than 21,000 days). But, even if I had all the proverbial time in the world, I couldn’t say anything new. So, hail, Groucho.

Time is not so gently on my mind. It never ceases to amaze me how much we eagerly anticipate the future only to discover it much too quickly becomes the past.

Change of Scenery
Mere days ago my sister Lois returned to the U.S. after a fantastic three weeks with us; for the first 10 days, her husband Ron was here as well. The last time I saw Lois, she was packing dishes and fragile treasures for storage in Virginia as Jim, Keir and I scrambled to relocate from the U.S. to Austria in just over 4 weeks.  Given that this wasn’t a move we had anticipated making, that we had never lived abroad before (Jim had but as a youngster), and that neither of us has the organization/planning/smooth sailing gene, chaos reigned. Without Lois’ help, we might well have resorted to simply throwing the glassware at each other and sweeping the damage out the door.

Tram Station Flowers
This was Lois and Ron’s first visit to Europe, and since their home of Aberdeen, South Dakota, was subjected to one of the longest, most wretched winters in recent history, they were ready (desperate?) for a change of scenery.

Ron, Stephansdom Festival
After traveling from Aberdeen to Minneapolis to Toronto to Vienna, they arrived with their curiosity and enthusiasm intact even as their bodies reeled from the transcontinental travel.  We had neglected to tell Ron that Austrian Airlines, though based in a country populated with some of the tallest people on the planet, has legroom designed for the munchkins of Oz.  After stretching cramped limbs and massaging sore knees, Lois and Ron dove into exploring Vienna.

At the Danube
In hopes of tricking their bodies into resetting to Austrian time, we allowed them only a smidgeon of rest and then wandered around the First District, where we showed them our favorite reposing woman statue, lingered at the Kleines Café, and peeked into the Franciscan church, little of which either remembered days later due to the jet lag stalking them.  They woke up the next morning in astonishingly good shape and spirits.

Keir on the River
Both Lois and Ron would rank at the top of our list of easiest-people-in-the-world-to-be-with, so even our routine activities such as riding the trams and sitting in sidewalk cafes were imbued with a new sense of fun and relaxation.  We filled the days with hours of catching up, walking and taking in the sights:  the “Last Supper” mosaic at the Minoriten church, Judenplatz, the Servitengasse Keys, the Vienna Woods, the schloss at Laxenburg, the Liechtenstein Museum and Rubens Café among them. Lois and Ron headed off on their own a couple of times to check out Stephansdom and Parliament, wander, and people watch.

Our guests came with a list of three must-dos recommended by my dad:  the Lipizzaner Stallions (especially interesting for Lois who spent her adolescence riding Molly Sue up and down the gulches and gulleys of the prairie and competing in barrel racing and pole bending events), the Riesenrad, and a Danube River cruise.

Wachau Valley
Church Outside
Due not only to Dad’s recommendation but also his cash (thanks, Dad), we enjoyed a bus tour to the Wachau Valley  on a chilly, rainy day and embarked on a boat down the Danube to the monastery at Melk with its baroque-gone-mad church so over-the-top Lady GaGa would shudder. 

It also offered stunning views and a phenomenal library (see top photo) with volumes of handwritten pages. The church also contained the remains of two "catacomb saints," unidentified bodies dropped off in the 1700s and later given sainthood and names by the monks.  The one pictured here is Frederich.  The one across the church is Clemens.

Church Inside

Jim had to return to work after a couple of days and Keir was sweating finals, so Lois, Ron and I headed downtown to explore a cellar beneath a traditional clothing store that Jim and I had recently discovered. I won’t name the store because I’m not sure how much non-purchasing traffic the clerks – among the warmest and most patient women I’ve met in Vienna who not only tolerated my German but encouraged it– would appreciate. If I remember correctly, the cellar was mentioned in one of Duncan Smith’s excellent Vienna guidebooks.
Aprons down under 

Walking down the stairs to the cellar is in itself amazing, but then the levels continue – down, down, down – past a stunning array of literally hundreds of dirndls, aprons, blouses, and jackets representing both the old and more current versions of traditional female dress. The temperature cools with each level and the mustiness grows, and one can only wonder who inhabited these spaces in days gone by. I suspect they were once connected to a variety of tunnels throughout the city and might well have been used as bomb shelters during the war.
Dirndls further down under 

We were caught in the store unprepared for the downpour that hit, so we spent a long time perusing the goods (including adorable little girl dresses which were admired but not bought because Lois and Ron have four granddaughters and what one gets….) and finely tailored Tyrolean jackets and cloaks.

Umbrella-less, we made a run for it, and only got a matter of yards before we joined others in cowering in a windowsill. We soon dashed into a café and enjoyed goulash, which as Lois reminded me, was nothing like the 1950s hamburger/macaroni/cheese dish dubbed goulash in the American Midwest.
Cafe Central

Poor Ron had to return to work, but Lois didn’t because, as a middle school counselor, she has a short summer in which to recover her energy. My favorite memory of  Ron’s visit is of him pulling up a chair to one of our windows several times a day, mesmerized by the life below: daredevil bicyclists, groups of preschoolers hanging on to one another’s shirttails led and followed by covered Islamic women, clanging trams,  elegant elderly couples, kids and adults zipping by on razor scooters, lots of tall, leggy women. The hundreds of hours I’ve spent being a voyeur suddenly seemed “normal.”


Reeve's tall house
Lois and I began phase 2 of the adventure. We flew to Nice, where we caught a train to Marseilles and then another to the train station in Arles. We walked along the Rhone River, baggage in hand, to Reeve’s 16th century home overlooking Emperor Constantine’s baths.

For four days, we wandered the narrow, dirty, intriguing streets of Arles. We happened upon two weddings in the square in front of St. Trophime’s, a dark Romanesque Church in stark contrast to most churches in Vienna. Everyone was dressed to the nines. The French, including women our age and older, are so stylish and sexy – no wonder ooh  la la was coined.
VW's of Love 

What struck us, though, was this detail. In the U.S., sometimes the wedding party members attach cans and paint slogans on the bride and groom’s getaway car. Here the cars are adorned with beautiful bouquets and ribbons. Classy.

Mini Bride 

Our French Connection
We strolled through one of Arles’ cemeteries, intrigued by the ceramic collections on gravesites depicting the cemetery’s residents, and visited the museum of ancient artifacts where we were enthralled by a model depicting the ingenuity of the Roman bridge built on boats.
Lois, Reeve, Ocean

Father & Son
Most importantly, we spent time with toddling, babbling, sweet Ocean, who quickly bonded with Great Aunt Lois (but this grandma didn’t feel too threatened – if I were a baby, I’d choose her, too). Melanie and Reeve were their usual entertaining and stimulating selves, and we enjoyed a trip to the colorful market with its astonishing panoply of olives, wines, and fresh produce and dined on their rooftop terrace until the unusual number of bloodthirsty mosquitoes chased us away.

The return train trip along the French Riviera featured palm trees, the blue expanse of the Mediterranean and old men in Speedos.

Roof with a View
After we returned to Vienna, Jim, Lois and I happened upon Ruprechtskirche, the oldest church in Vienna, at a time when it was actually open. Compared to the church at Melk, this small, simple church with its stark stone altar was like pure spring water drunk after days of gluttony and debauchery (or so I imagine).  Lois and I visited the Belvedere, and Lois, Keir and I visited the only Viennese flak tower, symbol of dark and ugly days, that has been transformed into a life-enhancing experience: a climbing wall on the outside and  aquarium/aviary inside.  
Climbing Wall

Finally, the day before she left, Lois, Keir and I headed to Prater via tram to ride the famed ferris wheel.
So, now Lois is back in the U.S. preparing for her youngest son’s upcoming wedding, and I’m still recovering from the shock of going from delightful daily companionship with one person who has known me from my very beginnings to the reality of life as an isolated expat far away from both family and friends.

But, not to worry, time will pass all too quickly and soon we will be into our second year in Vienna and sooner than we can imagine, we will be back in familiar environs. And then we’ll wonder, where did all that time go?

Sunday, June 5, 2011

One Temple, Two Hospitals, and a Friend

Recently, I saw a different Vienna -- in the corridor of a hospital neurology unit.

Remember my friend Gillian who has MS? Gillian’s luck ran out and she reluctantly had to accept the IV steroids that her doctor recommended.  Her treatments were administered at the oldest still-operating hospital in Vienna, the Krankenhaus der Barmherzigen Brüder,  (Brothers of Mercy), located in the Second District, Leopoldstadt, the same district of the Prater suicide swings and flak towers we featured in past blogs.  

When we were looking at apartments almost a year ago, our Iraqi taxi driver made this comment as we passed the Second District, “That’s where the Jews live.” The observation was unsolicited and matter-of-fact, but its utterance gave us pause. We’ll write about the tragedy of Jewish Vienna in a future blog, but for now, these few facts and photos will suffice.

Jews: Baptism or death
Temple site
The Second District became a Jewish ghetto in 1625, when it was decreed by Emperor Ferdinand the II that Jews had to live outside the city walls; then in 1699 Emperor Leopold I banished the Jews from the area (I don’t know where they went); then in 1781 Emperor Josef II allowed them back in. All this happened after the first expulsion of the Jews in 1421, when hundreds of Viennese Jews committed suicide rather than be forced to become Christians. And this is only a partial history of a people subject to Vienna’s anti-Semitic whims. 

In 1938, on Krystalnacht, all of Vienna’s synagogues but one were destroyed by Nazis, including what must have been a magnificent temple in the Second District, now commemorated by four stark columns.  A series of plaques on an iron fence where the temple stood (top image) commemorate some of the thousands of Vienna Jews killed in the years after Krystalnacht. 

The Temple

The Church
The Catholic churches and monastery in the Second District had a much less tumultuous history. Jim and I ducked into this one on Sunday, only to discover a small group of Asians worshipping in what sounded like Vietnamese. 

Spending time in a Catholic hospital reminded me of St. Mary’s, the only hospital in Pierre, South Dakota, which was begun in what many Americans consider a long time ago: 1899.

The Viennese Krankenhaus, however, was established in 1614 by Brothers of Mercy, a religious order inspired by an intriguing character, later sainted as John of God. This man, born in Portugal in 1495, either ran away or was kidnapped at age 8. He became a shepherd, a mercenary fighting the Turks, a bookseller, a traveler in Africa, and, when he suddenly found God, an unwilling patient in an insane asylum. Once released, he devoted himself to the care of the sick and mentally ill and to this day is considered the patron saint of nurses. 

A Big Brother of Mercy 
St. Mary’s was begun by five duped Benedictine nuns traveling by train from Yankton with their total savings of $20.

According to St. Mary’s website, Pierre’s city fathers had put out a regional plea for teachers because they needed a school. Many religious orders had declined the offer to move to “such a bleak and desolate area,” but these Benedictines were made of sterner stuff.  The Sisters faced the daunting task of cleaning up a dilapidated, garbage and rodent-filled hotel, the Park Hotel, which had been abandoned seven years earlier. This was to be the site of the new school.  Then the city fathers pulled a bait and switch. The nuns came to create a school, but after the women began cleaning, the men insisted on a hospital instead.
St. Mary's then 

One of the doctors involved in this (who perhaps was a bit bitter) had been unexpectedly stranded in Pierre in 1882. Dr. D.W. Robinson, a Pennsylvanian of Scottish descent (he was apparently a descendant of the well-known Stuart line of Scots, according to the Web) was en route to begin a medical practice on the West Coast, but this highly-educated doctor apparently “misread” the railway brochure and hit the end of the line in Pierre.
Duplicity apparently played a significant role in the civilizing of my hometown. And this ethically ambiguous attitude cost three of the nuns their lives. They succumbed to one of the three scourges of the time – typhoid fever (small pox and pneumonia were the others) – contracted while treating patients rather than teaching children.

St. Mary's later
Back to 2011. Gillian’s husband, Ronnie, accompanied her to her first day of treatments during which her misadventures included an encounter with a “pretty boy” who thought that his handsome face would make up for his ungentle treatment of Gillian’s veins. It didn’t. It only solidified Gillian’s theory that pretty boys should not work in medical fields, and for days she had the bruise to support her view. In addition, she first met a character who would enliven our visits, and of whom we would eventually become somewhat fond, a woman she nicknamed, “Frau Wien,” Mrs. Vienna.

Gillian is decidedly not a fearful person, but to say she is terrified of needles borders on understatement. She suggested that this might be from her childhood when she would rummage for coins in her mother’s purse. Her mother, a psychiatric nurse, had a habit of carrying needles in her handbag. 

Gillian & IV
From Tuesday through Friday, Gillian and I went to the hospital daily, and she received her treatments with amazing composure while sitting in the corridor of the neurology wing. 

It seemed a bit odd, but numerous patients, primarily elderly and clad in either hospital gowns or pajamas, were sitting in the corridor watching life pass by rather than hidden away in their hospital rooms. Gillian, whose experience includes Scottish hospitals as well as a Florida hospital (a horrifying, post-outpatient-surgery, life-threatening experience – take note, those of you who still think the U.S. has the best health care system in the world), found this arrangement initially odd. Here’s how she describes it on her blog: 

I have to admit that I had been pushed a little out of my comfort zone the previous week when I had blood taken (while sitting next to my friend Misti) in a busy corridor, but I had now come to prefer the Austrian approach of ‘corridor treatment’ and saw it as the best possible location for run-of-the-mill medical procedures.
I have a few reasons for this… In a corridor you are a) unlikely to be alone, providing you with both distraction and witnesses, b) unlikely to see trays of scary medical instruments lying around  – causing that horrible stomach churning feeling that the merest glimpse of a sharp, pointy thing can inspire and c) under less pressure to assume the role of ‘sick person’ when you are doing something as normal as sitting next to a coffee table (albeit attached to an IV drip).

The entire procedure took from two to 3 hours, so we had a lot of time to soak in the atmosphere.

Once again, contrary to popular folklore, not everyone speaks English (and there’s no reason why they should). While the neurologist and several of the staff spoke nearly flawless English, a few spoke almost none. With regards to serious medical procedures, this can be disconcerting.

The first day, Gillian had an uncomfortable introduction to Frau Wien. Gillian told me that this woman accosted her any time she was alone demanding “her” chair back in hissing Deutsch, an alarming situation any time, but particularly when your arm is attached via an inserted tube to an IV pole. Gillian was repeatedly rescued by her husband and staff.

Over the next few days, I met Frau Wien, who was dressed in a hospital gown and brightly colored Crocs.  She would speak to us in quick German even after we explained in slow German that we couldn’t understand anything she said.  On Wednesday, after casting many suspicious glances our way, this hunched over woman with a scalp barely covered by wispy strands of gray hair, suddenly approached with a smile and a gift. She handed Gillian a huge wad of crumpled up, coarse toilet paper, which Gillian, masking her horror with a sweet smile, accepted with her free hand, and then placed on the table and subtly pushed as far away as possible, never taking her eyes from Frau Wien’s face and carefully noting her proximity to the IV stand. 

Unfortunately, Frau Wien bumped into the IV stand during one of her “visits”, which “shuggled” (Scottish for jiggled) the line in Gillian’s arm; in any language, this was painful.

One morning Frau Wien wandered the hall clutching foliage, which we coveted but did not receive. On Thursday, we noticed that she had a small pouch around her neck filled with scraps of paper, and in her hands, a dark, dripping object, the identity of which we didn’t even want to know.  Frau Wien followed us to the door to make her escape. I entreated her in my best German to stay put and dashed off to find a “Krankenschwester,” nurse. 

Gillian and I wondered what occupation Frau Wien once had – perhaps a waitress (she liked to carry things) or a spy (perhaps the shards of paper were notes on “the foreigners” in the hallway). The staff treated Frau Wien, whom we learned from her roommate has Alzheimer’s, with kindness, patience and gentle humor.

Our Cafe, Closed
The best part of each day, however, was leaving the hospital and enjoying lunch in a sidewalk café.

Unfortunately, Gillian developed severe edema, so after a quick visit to the wonderful Austrian neurologist on Friday, more steroids were ruled out; however, Gillian was still suffering the painful effects days later. 

Last Wednesday, Gillian, Ronnie, and their two dogs  (including one-eyed Tasha – the victim of a vicious dog attack on their winter drive home) were packed into the Bentley for the two-day drive to Glasgow. After arriving in Glasgow, Gillian e-mailed me that she had become intensely ill during the drive and had to be flown home from Amsterdam. 

I know I’m way too old to expect life to be fair, but that this intelligent, warm, charming young woman should be suffering this way, in my dad’s words, “just ain’t right.”

Being in the hospital corridor with Gillian reminded me of my Candy Striper days.  As an early teen who vacillated among many career choices (and this was in the 1960s when most working American women were nurses, teachers, or secretaries), and who lived in South Dakota, not exactly a bastion of feminism, I nonetheless was a pretty ambitious girl. I wanted to be a doctor or a pianist or a writer or a naturalist, and I thought in the best of worlds, I could do them all. Naïve doesn’t begin to describe it.

I began my exploration of medicine as a volunteer when I was in junior high school. I remember the crisp, always freshly-ironed, red and white striped jumper with the dazzling white blouse as being particularly smart. We girls cheerfully delivered flowers, helped with the dinner trays, folded laundry, changed bedding, ran errands and worked side-by-side with the nuns. Fortunately, these hospital nuns were of the type not to proselytize. But it was then that I realized that some nuns, much like some women in the larger world, can be bitches.

I was born in that hospital, and fortunately the birth was by all accounts, an easy one. My mother, who was pregnant 8 times in 11 years (five babies survived) was once asked by a doctor if she were Catholic. She said, “No, just a loose Lutheran.”  It made her a little nervous delivering babies in the Catholic hospital (the only hospital within a 100 to 150-mile radius). She told me the policy was that if a choice had to be made between saving the life of the laboring mother or the life of the newborn, the staff was to let the mother die no matter how many children were at home awaiting her arrival. The husband’s opinion didn’t matter. Luckily, my mother delivered babies with astounding ease.

It might have been after hearing about that policy that I developed my deep suspicion for advice given by experts with little real-life experience – childless child psychologists, for instance.

I just googled Candy Stripers to see if the program still exists (it does) and if they wear the same uniforms (they don’t), but what I also discovered is that Candy Stripers have inspired their own movie genre. There’s Candy Stripers, from 2006, in which the traditionally barely-pubescent stripers have been replaced by fully developed strippers with heaving bosoms.  Rather than with innocence and good cheer, these beasts infect an entire hospital with insidious aliens passed from mouth to mouth. The movie is replete with scenes of bloody sex and ripped-out organs and Candy Stripers shot through the head. The “best” scenes are actually available on You Tube. A 1978 film, also imaginatively called Candy Stripers, features the “sexual adventures” of these little tarts in red and white. 

I ask, is nothing sacred?

In the neurology wing of the Brothers of Mercy, I saw no young girls of the Candy Striper or Stripper ilk, but since school is still in session, and we were there on weekday mornings, perhaps the volunteers simply weren’t available. 

The latest update from Gillian is that she is recovering both from MS symptoms and from 10 months in Vienna as a “trailing spouse,” and rediscovering the joys of life in her own home, which is located right next to the ruins of a castle.

As older people, we’re a bit amazed that Keir’s American and Austrian friends have met each other, well, kind of. Keir plays X-Box wearing headphones and friends from both continents join in and “meet.”   In a similar fashion, I would love for my American friends and family to “meet” Gillian by going to her blog.

Gillian is a fine writer and poet (her love of the war poet, Wilfred Owens, is infectious) who writes about her MS with humor and a lack of self pity (MS “fairies” and Michelin Man symptoms), about the travails of life with two dogs much too small to be so much trouble, and about the joys of the Scottish language. Now that Gillian is back in Glasgow, I’ll have to suspend my dream of becoming trilingual: English, Deutsch and Scottish vernacular (awffy crabbit, anyone?).

For an entertaining introduction to Scottish, check out her blog “Parliamo 
Glasgow,” from Feb. 22.  Anyone who has MS or knows someone who has MS or is merely curious should read Gillian’s descriptions of the disease in her regular blog or under Diagnosis. For her evocative, elegant poetry, which has been one means by which she has coped with her illness, click on Saor Alba. My favorites are “The Wake,” “Croy Shore” and “Ice."

A few blogs ago I was lamenting the absence of shared history that results from leaving friends and family behind. With Gillian, I’ve learned the obvious: that history – personal and otherwise - just keeps happening.  When I visit Gillian in Scotland this fall, all I’ll have to say is “Frau Wien,” or “pretty boy” or  “Prosecco, bitte - zwei”  and  she’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.