Sunday, October 16, 2011

Serendipity in Vienna

The first year of most enterprises warrants more attention than the second. Married people are no longer newlyweds and most new hires are off probation, a freshman becomes a sophomore, a new car doesn’t smell so new, and first-time parents are now experienced in the previously unimaginable joys and challenges of putting a small creature’s needs and desires ahead of their own.  In the U.S., most small businesses fail within the first year; by Year Two, the hope of a Year Three is less a delusion and more a possibility.

And since I mentioned parents, here’s grandson #2, Ocean, in the middle of his second year of life, Reeve and Melanie at a recent opening at their gallery in Arles, and a close-up of one of Reeve's new pieces of art.

In the U.S. I told a friend, only half kiddingly, that since my dear friend Gillian had returned to Glasgow and that a new friendship is rare, that this year I was opting for social quantity rather than quality. I was intent on proving to myself that a person can change one’s nature even at 58.

One-on-one conversation in a quiet environment is as essential to me as air, but I’ve always found it difficult to talk with more than one person at a time. Among my favorite poems is one by Minnesota poet Robert Bly: “Looking Into A Face,” which includes these words: “I have wandered in a face for hours….” Notice, “a face” not “faces.”

Reeve's Art

I find it confusing to converse with more than one person. There’s too much history, too much sub-text in the room, too many possibilities about the direction a conversation takes; my focus is divided.  Talking with more than one person is like reading two books, one by Faulkner and the other by Jacqueline Suzanne, or listening to Eminem and an aria simultaneously – I break out in a sweat and my brain threatens to explode.

Keir was traveling to a volleyball tournament in Frankfurt, and since visiting team members are hosted in family’s homes, a small host present was needed.  I wasn’t feeling well, but since I had left the errand until the last moment as usual, I took the familiar walk to Gillian’s old neighborhood to a chocolate store I favor – one that makes chocolate on the premises.

I bought what I needed and while walking home, steeped in self-pity, I passed a small antique shop that I’ve passed by dozens of times but which has never been open, not once, when I’ve been in that neighborhood.

The Antique Store 

This day, not only was it open but several people were milling about, changing the window displays, chatting and enjoying one another’s company.  Ordinarily the presence of several people would have been reason not to stop, but this being Year Two, I entered the shop and began to practice my German.

And voila, serendipity. Here’s the thing about serendipity – it ain’t gonna happen when one sits alone in a Viennese apartment. And the word might have a family connection as it was coined by Horace Walpole from a tale entitled “The Three Princes of Serendip,”  and Walpole is my brother-in-law’s last name, and “Serendip” figures largely in a book by John Barth, Jim’s favorite author. Ah, coincidence….
Jim's Favorite

I was asking the clerk whether it was more correct to say Ich wohne or Ich lebe im Wien, and is so often the case, we don’t think about the subtleties of our own language until we’re asked about a grammar point or a word choice; she wasn’t sure. Then she said in German that I should ask the man just entering the shop.

A trim, dapper gentleman with the most wonderful eyeglasses and wavy hair began speaking to me in German, and correcting me, which I appreciate, and only after I had embarrassed myself sufficiently, did he reveal that he was an American.

He introduced himself as Norman Shetler, a classical pianist, who has lived in Vienna for more than 50 years.

Not only was he American, but when I mentioned South Dakota, he asked about Yankton, the town outside of which still stands the sod and log cabin built by my newly-immigrated ancestors. Those of you not from a state as minimally populated as S.D. (roughly 800,000 people) probably don’t know how frequently Americans look puzzled at the mention of South Dakota. Those forced to memorize the capital cities in their school days might mention Pierre, my hometown, which they pronounce as Peeyaire. The native pronunciation is far less hoighty-toighty: Peer.  Or, they mention Bismarck, and I have to dismiss them as dunces.

A digression. When I was teaching just outside Washington, D.C., I became aware that most immigrants or international students or au pairs think they’ve experienced the U.S. because they’ve lived on the East Coast and visited California and maybe Florida and Las Vegas. Then I introduce them to the term “fly-over land,” and tell them they know virtually nothing about the U.S., and neither do so many Americans living on the East or West coasts who have traveled the world but never bothered to explore the majority of their own country, which lies between the various coastlines.

Norman, however, has roots in Dubuque, Iowa, a charming river city on the bluffs of the Mississippi River in the middle of the U.S., which I once bicycled through, and his wife is from Albuquerque, New Mexico, where Jim worked as a cops reporter in the 1970s. In fact, Jim’s second screenplay, which he is now revising, is titled “Albuquerque.”

Police Reporter

Our German ended the moment we left the shop and for much of the sunny afternoon Norman regaled me with stories. His vocation is pianist, and master puppeteer, but his avocation is raconteur. This being Year Two and the conversation being not only delightful but rich in shared references, I asked Norman if he might have coffee with me occasionally so that I could practice my German. This charming man said, “How about now?” and he and I headed to Rubens, where Gillian and I had spent many happy hours in conversation with her two dogs patiently waiting by our feet.

He came to Vienna in 1955, the year the Russians finally left the city after occupying it (along with the U.S., France, and Great Britain) since the end of World War II, and when Norman mentioned the Russians there was either a moment of implied or actual disdain in his voice (or I imagined it), something I’ve heard often when Austrians mention the Russians. The Russians, enraged by the devastation of World War II, including 17,000 Russians killed in the Battle of Vienna, punished the Viennese – raping the women, destroying property, and engaging in an extreme amount of drunken crime.

The schloss where Jim works in Laxenburg took the brunt of much Russian revenge. Here are pictures of the palace as the Russians left it and as it looks now:

Schloss Now
Schloss Then

 So, Norman moved to a city still traumatized and has experienced its recovery over the decades firsthand.

Post-Russian Palace
I’m not a particularly visual person when it comes to illustrating blogs, as I’ve apologized for many times, but I do savor unusual sights. Among my favorites was a raggedy, dirty man in downtown Minneapolis I saw maybe 20 years ago who looked like a homeless and drunk Nick Nolte – a sad picture to be sure. But, he was conscientiously flossing his teeth as he walked down the sidewalk. The incongruity has always remained with me.

This came to mind because Norman painted a memorable, and much more innocent picture for me: As a three-year-old boy he was already performing - - dancing while playing the accordion – now there’s an image. In addition, his father was an actual Harold Hill ala “The Music Man,” except that he didn’t swindle swell folks out of money; instead he really did create bands.

Eventually Norman was supposed to go to Juilliard to study, but World War II intervened. His military career had something in common with both Jim’s dad and my father: Men who could type, what was considered a “woman’s” job until computer keyboards made typing genderless, were invaluable to the armed forces and typing tended to keep men out of combat zones, excellent news for a pianist.

The war ended, and Juilliard was no longer a possibility, so Norman moved to Vienna, the classical music capital reduced to rubble, and what was originally intended as a temporary stop instead because a permanent home from which he embarked on his international career.

Among the highlights of his career was an encounter with the central figure in one of my cultural memories. Norman competed at the First Tchaikovsky competition in Moscow in 1958, a huge moment in American classical music history because a very young Van Cliburn, blew everyone away. Norman not only met Van Cliburn but also Kruschev, and, if I remember correctly, he heard Van Cliburn play and spoke of that ineffable something that distinguishes the truly great.

Now, that win might not seem so important in an age in which everybody who plays so much as Chopsticks can appear in a YouTube video, but in 1958, that triumph led to a ticker tape parade in New York City, and Van Cliburn was an instant celebrity.

That year I was only five and hadn’t yet started the piano lessons that would be hugely significant in my childhood, adolescence and college years. My dad hadn’t yet won the hundreds of dollars in gambling that meant not only did my mother get a new washing machine but the family got a piano; I think that was in 1962. I shudder to think of my piano-less life had my dad not been a lucky gambler – he always has said his middle initial “L” stands for “Lucky.” Actually it stands for Laverne, the name of a French mademoiselle who nursed my grandfather back from influenza during the First World War, a story of cow’s milk and hay lofts and….Who knows?

But, when I was 17, and had established myself as a competent, small-town pianist, Van Cliburn was scheduled to play in Sioux Falls. My parents, I suspect mostly my mother, allowed me to go to Sioux Falls to meet my boyfriend, fellow pianist Randy (later to be my husband and father of Reeve), who was in college in Iowa. The reason? To attend a concert by Van Cliburn. Trust me, in 1970 the idea of a good Lutheran high school girl meeting a college boyfriend in a city far, far away, was not the norm. But that’s not the only reason I remember Van Cliburn with affection.

I don’t remember what he played but I do remember where we sat and what it was like to be in the presence of such magnificence.

Another story of Norman’s that meshed oddly with my life is that he said a pianist from South America (possibly Peru) who was at the 1958 competition did the oddest thing. Either out of nerves or ignorance of convention (quite possible previous to cable TV and the internet), he played his pieces nonstop – no pause between them. This amazed me because many years ago I wrote a short story about a pianist, in which the pianist plays a long ribbon of music with no stops, but I would never have imagined such a thing had happened in real life. A friend called my fiction a “horror story.” That poor pianist, embarrassed as much as he might have been when he realized his error, at least left a lingering impression.

So, after a lovely conversation including a discussion about vocalists who consider their vocal apparatus another sex organ, the afternoon ended.

Norman took a blah day and transformed it into something memorable. So, perhaps that’s my first lesson of Year Two. Serendipity exists, but it needs a little help. Right place, right time, magic.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Second Impressions: Another Year in Wien

It’s now been nearly 15 months since we moved to Vienna, and once again I’m in my perch at the third-story apartment window ogling women’s legs.  Among my first impressions that have proven true is that Viennese women, regardless of age, have stunning legs and they love to show them off. Walking? Skiing? Hiking in the Tyrolean Alps? Biking? Genetics? Who knows? But these don’t strike me as legs defined by Pilates and honed by hard-bodied personal trainers.

Another initial impression proved true is that many, if not most, middle-aged and elderly Viennese women don’t know the meaning of “she let herself go.” As our friend Mark, who visited a few weeks ago, noticed, you can walk behind a woman here who is stylishly decked out, with a beautiful figure, strutting confidently in bare legs and high heels (the very sight of which makes my bunions throb), and when you actually pass her and see her face, you stifle your gasp. Despite the flattering hair and make-up, the woman is clearly in her 50s or 60s or even 70s. Now, for some men, this excellent rear view might qualify as false advertising. I prefer to see these Viennese women (and the French) as inspirations that could teach American women quite a lot about being sexy at any age.

Going into my second year in Vienna, I’ve got first impressions on my mind. Few things are as hard to overcome as a negative first impression, as those who advise job applicants are quick to remark. An interviewee has something like a nanosecond to come across as a desirable hire. I always told my ESL writing students two rules for writing. First, don’t bore the reader (me). Second, your first sentences form the reader’s first impression. They need to be the equivalent of the firm American handshake a prospective employer expects. If you want the job, or a friendly reader, don’t extend a floppy fish hand reminiscent of a sadly impotent man or crush finger bones to dust. And, if your introductory sentences contain basic grammatical errors, it’s as if you smiled at the interviewer with remnants of that last taco between your teeth.

(An aside to the grammar mavens among you. Yes, I’m aware that some of my blogs contain the occasional grammar or spelling error; editing oneself is tantamount to scaling Mt. Everest sans Sherpa guides. However, whenever I try to correct such errors, I blow up the blog, something Jim doesn’t find amusing.)

Okay. I’ve done it again. I’ve written without regard to photo opportunities. For this blog, Jim will provide a few visual interludes and comment.  Here’s the first.

Keir and Friends 
[Try as I might, I wasn’t able to find images of legs that would keep this a reasonably family appropriate blog.  Klimt has done some nice drawings,  but I’ll leave it to you to find them.  We haven’t been shooting pictures with the blog in mind, so this entry is very random.

Yesterday Keir’s varsity volleyball team played several games against visiting Budapest.  When he played Babe Ruth baseball in Virginia, an away game to Springfield or Herndon was considered long distance.  Thus far he’s played an away game in Frankfurt, Germany, and last week we hosted the team from Munich.   Here is a picture of Keir (#4) when the American International School Knights played Munich.

Keir vs. Munich

 While Keir’s team was soundly beating the Budapest team, I talked with the coach of their girls team.   It was a reminder that we’re not in Kansas anymore.  She was born in Poland and spoke with a Polish accent, but she lived most of her life in Quebec and was raised as a French Canadian.  She just got her PhD in social linquistics from Oxford and is living her dream of teaching French to high school kids in Budapest.   She also teaches Polish and German.  I was just trying to understand the rules to the vollyball game.

And here is Misti.]

As I was saying, first impressions matter, whether they’re formed in interviews, writing, speed dating, or traveling. One of the amazing and unanticipated things about living abroad for a year is that when you return home, you see things differently, almost as first impressions.

Colin & Misti
We were home in the U.S. for three weeks, including a delightful stay with Erin, Will, and adorable grandson, 2-year-old-Colin, in Maryland, and then we spent a few days in Minneapolis/St. Paul for my sister’s youngest son’s wedding – a lovely, classy, warm occasion during which we caught up with siblings, nieces, and nephews (and their children) whom we haven’t seen for years. We spent too little time with old friends in Minneapolis, the city in which all four children were born.

Back in Virginia, we were the beneficiaries of warm and generous hosts including friends and family.

Bride & Groom
Going from the isolation which is my lot here in Vienna to constant intermingling was, at times, overwhelming. The first night when everyone was arriving for the wedding festivities and greeting each other and catching up, I had to leave the room. Not only was the conversation of so many people at one time confusing, I could actually understand every word everyone said. My brain nearly exploded. Now, of course, I’m isolated and miss the contact.

Vienna Street
The first new first impression: diversity. Vienna is very white. We see an occasional African or African American, and one of my acquaintances is a black South African attorney (who is the one thing sadder than a trailing wife, a trailing husband). Unfortunately, he has occasionally experienced the racism that still plagues Vienna. In fact, a slight scandal occurred last spring when a taxi driver kicked out an American opera singer because she was black.  Asian faces are a tad more common, but varying hues of vanilla dominate the human landscape. It doesn’t seem particularly 21st century here despite the statistic that 30 percent of the inhabitants were not born in Vienna.

A building as Art
My former students, especially those from countries with extremely homogeneous populations such as Korea or Saudi Arabia, often described their shock upon landing at JFK or Dulles. They were dumbstruck by the races, nationalities, languages, attire – the hubbub of the world’s peoples milling about in one place. The reality in any American city, and most smaller towns, is that the U.S. looks like what it is: a nation of immigrants from every corner of the globe.

During our visit home, I was struck by a simple scene.  On a street in Falls Church, I saw a minor fender bender involving three cars. The drivers, an African American woman, Middle Eastern man, and Asian woman wearing a U.S. post office uniform, were all calmly, if not cheerfully, exchanging their insurance information. At NOVA alone, I taught students from more than 90 countries and many American public schools contain students speaking more than 80 languages and dialects.

My second new first impression of the U.S.? Excess.

I still find it odd in Vienna that I can go into the Billa or Spar and see empty shelves. “Let’s have chicken breasts for dinner,” I think, and then I hie myself to the store only to discover there’s no chicken breast to be had. In Virginia, I stopped to gawk as I entered a Giant supermarket. How can there possibly be that much food in one place? That many choices, that much junk, that much excessive packaging, that much certainty that unless there’s an impending hurricane or blizzard, the shelves will be fully and invitingly stocked?

Which led naturally to the other obvious American excess -- pounds, and I don’t mean the British currency. Rarely do we see obese people in Vienna, but, unfortunately, it’s a common sight in the U.S. and the whole world knows it.  The solution becomes really quite obvious when living in Europe: Eat less junk food and walk, walk, walk.

Shortly after we arrived in Austria in 2010, Jim and I went to a cafĂ© in Modling for a light lunch. I simply ordered roasted potatoes, Jim had a sandwich of which he ate half. The waitress, who spoke excellent English, burst out with, “You can’t eat that little. You’re Americans and Americans always eat way too much.”

My first impression of the Viennese being rude, unfriendly, and cold in public, has, alas, proven true. I enjoyed a wonderful conversation with Oleysia, the wife of the couple who is renting our house in Virginia. She is originally from Siberia and moved to the U.S. when she was 18.

When she asked me how I like Vienna, I responded with how beautiful the city is, how much I love public transportation, how the history is overwhelming at times. Then I said, “And the people….” And she finished my sentence for me: “They’re really mean, aren’t they?” She went on to talk about how she –and even her mother – will no longer visit Russia or most of Eastern Europe because the people are so harsh.  In contrast, she said what I’ve heard hundreds of times from my ESL students in Virginia, “Americans are so friendly and polite. I love it here.” Yes, she agreed, that friendliness can be superficial, but given the choice between people who run into you on the sidewalk and crash into you at the supermarket and cut in line and glower and glare and growl and who apparently believe apologizing is a sign of weakness, and people who actually hold the door open for you, smile, say hello, and are quick to apologize if they’ve been discourteous, well, the choice seems pretty obvious to me. As I've said before, on a one-to-one basis, the Viennese can be charming but not in public.

Another first impression of the U.S.: Except for their ridiculous love of guns and consequent violence and the behavior of a few asses at recent Republican debates (cheering for executions and booing an American soldier – really?), Americans tend to be orderly and fair. They stand in line, for instance. And at doctor’s offices, people behave themselves. We had made a variety of doctor’s appointments, and it was a joy to see people patiently waiting; even people waiting for possibly negative test results were uniformly pleasant. I don’t think we’ve written about Jim’s experience at an Austrian doctor’s office. Here’s Jimmy Lee:

Schloss in Fog
[IIASA, where I work, has a “house doctor” who comes in one afternoon every week and is really good.  But, if you need more than a casual consult, you have to walk across the platz in front of the schloss to the other doctor, who has a practice with a real office.  He opens just for IIASA employees for a few hours once a week.

So, a bunch of us IIASA folks gathered in his waiting room, most of us suffering from flu-like chest colds.  The doctor was late (trains are on time here, but doctors aren’t), and as we waited, an elderly Austrian woman, clearly from the village, came in and sat by herself in the far corner.  A few minutes later the doctor walked in, strode through the waiting room and into his office.  He shut his door.

That apparently was the signal to the elderly non-IIASA woman, who leaped up, moved quickly across the office, pulled open the door, gave us all an “up yours” look, and went inside.  She didn’t come out for 15 or 20 minutes.

On the local English-German-French rock radio station, the Austrian co-host, a woman named Nina, talked the other morning about how she always cuts in lines “because waiting in queues is boring.” When her co-host, a Brit, pointed out that it was rude, the otherwise likable Nina said she didn’t care because she didn’t like to be bored standing in line. The phrase "common courtesy" doesn't seem to exist here.

As bad as the Viennese are, the volleyball coach from Budapest said the people there are even worse.  They were part of the same Austro-Hungarian Empire  as the Viennese,  she said, and when it collapsed the Hungarians felt even more powerless and ignored than the Austrians.  They make up for it by being even ruder, she said.  Hard to imagine.  Back to Misti.]

Among the frustrating things about the U.S. is the utter dependence on cars. In Vienna, I’m not in a car for weeks at a time, and Reeve and Melanie in Arles, France, don’t even own a car. Being in the traffic hell that is Northern Virginia made me question American sanity yet again. The hours wasted in traffic result in talent undeveloped, creativity deadened, ideas unexpressed, intellect atrophied, revelation denied, potential romance squandered, less love made, and, oh, yes, bodies turned to flab. Whatever it costs to build a modern public transportation system would pay off hugely in the long run.

Vienna Mass Transit

Little things.  While in the U.S. I realized how much I miss American closets and clothes dressers and how much I love clothes dryers.  I was like a member of a lost tribe somewhere deep in the Amazon rain forest when I beheld clothes that came out of a machine dry, soft, and wrinkle-free. A gift from the gods. Upon returning to the streets of Vienna, I realized again how much I enjoy walking in this city and how I never tire of its exquisite details.

More Mass Transit
OK, it is now a month since I started writing this blog  and mentioned the difference in grocery stores.  Yesterday Jim and I went to a supermarket, Merkur. I pass the store every time I ride the bus to Keir’s school, which is situated in a far corner of the 19th District, right on the edge of the Vienna Woods.  Jim and I dropped Keir off at school at 7:30 for SAT testing and then four games of volleyball against Budapest, so we decided on a little grocery store field trip. 

The 19th District, which is a popular American expat district that is also home to wealthy Austrians and a few ambassadors, has had a certain cachet for more than a century.  Beethoven used to go to the 19th District to compose occasionally, and Mark Twain during his two years in Vienna as The Famous American Writer spent part of that time living very well in the 19th when he wasn’t hobnobbing with the aristocrats in the First.

And More
Anyway, we stopped, and despite my general lack of interest in food, I spent a long time going up and down aisles just to see what was there. It wasn’t quite Whole Foods or Harris Teeter but had elements of both. The major thing? We rarely spend more than 30 euros at a grocery store. Today, for relatively little food (but the Johnny Walker Red Label was on sale, and the olive tapenade just looked so good, and that ready-to-cook homemade lasagna would be so delicious tomorrow night, and ….. ) we spent 96 euros. Don’t bother to do the conversion. In either currency, it was too much. It definitely felt like we were in the US again.  When we mentioned our outing to Keir, he said, "Oh,yeah, that's the grocery store for rich people." We won’t be returning to Merkur anytime soon.

More Still
So, on to year two. Despite how much I miss beloved family and friends, colleagues, students, Chase the dog, our house and piano and wood burning stove, our own personal statue, the Jag (used, old, but like driving a Steinway), English, the bamboo (sorry, I love the bamboo), my ferns, the birds at the feeder, the deer (sorry, I love the deer), I’m thrilled to be staying. A year isn’t enough to learn the language or plumb the depths or understand the culture or create a rich personal world. Already since we returned, I’ve had more days of serendipity and wonder than days when I greet Jim when he gets home from work with, “I wanna go home.”

Now it’s Sunday morning, the sky is prehistoric Danube blue, and I can see the elegant statues outside my window that have become daily companions. Vienna might not yet qualify as HOME, but it is, for now, home.

A belated thank you to everyone who made our visit to the U.S.  so satisfying, stimulating and wonderful. You have another year. Come visit.