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?

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