Sunday, November 6, 2011

The Hills Are Alive


It’s Sunday morning in Vienna, but you’d never know we were anywhere but Virginia. It’s 10:30, Keir just got out of bed, Jim and I have already read the Washington Post online and Jim is watching an American college football game on TV.  He recently discovered that we get ESPN America on our government-registered TV, and as long as he doesn’t mind watching games that have already been concluded, he’s in sports heaven. In addition, he’s expanding his knowledge of the sports world by watching channels that feature such sporting events as kung fu volleyball and tischtennis.  The only obvious clue to our whereabouts is what we just ate for breakfast: Sachertorte.

Sachertorte is diabolically, decadently rich. No, this is not our usual morning fare, but Keir’s friend Natalie bought him the famed Viennese delicacy for his birthday, and, remarkably, this dense chocolate treat encased in delectable chocolate icing has lasted for more than 24 hours. To determine who gets this last piece, we may have to play a game of Stein, Papier, Schere.

Yesterday, while Keir was at the school practicing with classmates in a band that’s going to perform at the school’s cabaret in a couple of weeks (Cold Play’s “Shiver” is among the tunes), Jim and I headed to the Naschmarkt, a huge food and flea market (flohmarkt) we visit occasionally, to check out the goods. Again, except for dodging trams, it felt not much different from driving in D.C., especially in one regard: finding a parking place took forever.

Once at the market, we wandered among the aisles searching for treasures (specifically any Leica lenses – no luck) and wishing we had a clue as to what is a remarkable find as opposed to something merely interesting. As always when I’m in the world of commerce, I found myself staggered by the infinite ways humans have of turning raw materials into utterly unnecessary objects (kitsch of every description) as well as into the objects without which life is hardly worth living (books, accordians). Among the objects seemingly in demand were American license plates. Why? No clue.

This market is similar to a market in D.C. in that immigrant languages abound, except that in the U.S. the primary second language is Spanish, a language we rarely hear in Vienna. Being no linguist, I have nothing but guesses to offer, but frequently in Vienna we hear what appear to be Slavic languages (especially Slovenian and Slovakian) with Hungarian and Romanian thrown into the mix. Many of these languages are much more melodic sounding than German.

At the marginal stalls featuring third-or-fourth-hand clothes, well-worn shoes and broken appliances, many of the proprietors appear to be elderly immigrants who wear the travails of an impoverished existence on their deeply lined faces; some are perhaps merchants who have come to Vienna simply for the day.

I was struck by the various ways in which people advertise their economic status. I saw a middle-aged woman customer, who appeared to be Eastern European (I can’t describe this look, I just know it when I see it), who smiled broadly and showed off three gold-capped teeth in a row. It reminded me of a time shortly after we moved to D.C., when I was invited to speak at a conference of international teachers sponsored by the State Department. These particular teachers were primarily from the various Stans (Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, etc.), and I noticed a few of the attendees sporting gold-capped teeth. I asked the state department representative about it and was told it was a sign of wealth, not much different, I suppose, than rappers advertising their megabucks by wearing ridiculously ostentatious grills.

As a child who was condemned to wear a silver cap on one of my front teeth for five years (FIVE YEARS!) after a neighbor boy threw a rock at a boulder during a sandlot baseball game and said rock ricocheted into my apparently open 9-year-old mouth, I find capped teeth anything but attractive and desirable.  That silver cap plus my thick blue rhinestone-studded eyeglasses, star-shaped scar on my forehead (Squeaky Fromme, anyone?), machete-shaped scar on my lower leg, and concave chest spared me any premature dating.  I suppose I should be grateful . . 

Now I’m depressed, so let’s turn from this inelegant image (photo is of Misti pre-cap, pre-host of injuries) to something far more picturesque: Salzburg. Last weekend we decided to take a day trip to Salzburg.  Instead of taking the train, which we will do next time, we drove, assuming that we could stop in various charming villages we passed through on our way. Of course, we were driving on something akin to Interstate, so such stops didn’t exist, but the countryside was quite beautiful and Salzburg was the picture postcard city we had expected to see.  Here’s Jim.

This section is best read while humming “The hills are alive with the sound of music” and imagining Julie Andrews swaying on top of a hill.  Here is an image of Maria and one of the Von Trapp girls, shown as marionettes in a wonderful little museum deep in the Hohensalzburg Castle, which is an immense fortress that looms over the city.

Misti in Convent
We only spent a few hours in Salzburg, but it was impressive.  Keir and Natalie headed in one direction, and Misti and I in another.  Keir was taking photos along the Salzach River while we climbed the high, steep hill first to the Nun's Church, then on to the fortress. 

We have seen so many incredible churches in the past year that we find ourselves looking for the little things.  This church, part of the Nonnberg Convent, was built (actually rebuilt) from 1464 to 1503, and thus feels very old and understated.

But understated does not mean simple.  The back wall of the church was a series of windows that connected to the convent, and the ceiling (as always, look up) showed a date of 1503.  Just outside the door are rows of nun's graves. 

From a distance
Up Close
After visiting with the nuns, we headed further up the "hill" to the castle proper.  If ever there were a castle that seems impenetrable, this is it.  The fortress contains a small town within its walls.  There are cannons, a torture chamber, memorabilia from long-ago wars, a pyramid made of cannon balls, and a bier garten.  We toured the bier garten first, then wandered through passageways and courtyards until we came upon something entirely unexpected: a marionette museum.  

That is where we found the dancing girls at the top of this blog, plus a wonderful, and sometimes a little creepy, collection of wooden people.  The exhibits of wooden heads, hands, and feet were fascinating, as were the ghouls. 


Off to the side (the museum was in a couple of dark castle rooms) a video was running of the original artists who made these marionettes.  We were so enthralled with the puppets that we didn't get the dates or much background information, but we later learned that the marionettes are from a theater that started in 1913 with an opera about Mozart.  The theater is still putting on operas. The video was of the ballet Swan Lake, performed delicately with a wonderful wooden ballerina.

Swan Lake

Back out on the walls of the castle, looking south and west toward the Alps, was the stuff of movies.  

Castle with a View
We wondered if these were the mountains the Von Trapp's had to cross to get to Switzerland to escape the Nazis, but then we read the real story and learned that they actually walked to the Salzburg bahnhof and caught a train to Italy. 

Misti and I strolled the streets of old Salzburg much like we do in Vienna, and while streets are similar ... old and narrow with beautiful buildings everywhere ... we had a sense that something was missing.   Eventually, we looked up and realized the rooftops weren't lined with statues.  After a year in Vienna, we missed them.  

The Austrians have a habit of putting modern pieces of sculpture in the middle of ancient squares, and these pieces are often jarring as much for their anachronistic setting as for the art itself.  On the Graben in Vienna there are several very tall, black Michelin Men kind of Teenage Mutant Ninja statues standing next to the classic pieces.  The juxtaposition is an intentional statement of sorts, but we've never liked these particular pieces because they are, in our eyes, ugly.  Really ugly.  What we found in Salzburg provides another sense of how odd the artistic choices can be.

He's Art
Art from a distance
Keir's Sign
Keir discovered another piece of art that appeared old and classic, but wasn't.  Hanging signs are common in Vienna and Salzburg (see street photo above, left), and many are historic.  Look closely and you'll see that Keir's discovery is less than historic. 

But Salzburg truly is stunning, so I'll conclude this with a couple of images from Keir and me of the city and the mountains, taken from the castle.    

Alps at Dusk

From the Castle 

1 comment: