Sunday, January 22, 2012

Laggards of Vienna

We have been laggardly in our blog posting, with our last one being posted at the end of November as Vienna was getting ready for Christmas.  Well, Christmas has come and gone, as has New Year's Eve.   We are muddling through a mostly bland, gray, rainy winter with just the day-to-day stuff of life going on.

So, I'll recount the holidays, which may be interesting just because they are a little different, and thus exotic, on the banks of the Danube.

We purchased a slightly smaller tree this year from the guy down the street, decorated it Christmas Eve day, and spent some time wandering through the chilly streets to pick up some last-minute gifts at the Christmas markets.  Buying Christmas trees here feels more like renting them, because when the holidays are over, you take the tree back to the place you bought it and give it back.  They dispose of it.

Keir at Rathaus Market
Like everything else, we were laggardly in returning the tree and, as the needles started falling off in the second week of January, I figured it was time.  I was carrying the tree the five blocks back to the plaza where we bought it when a well-dressed Viennese woman, accompanied by her dapper husband and small Hund, yelled "Gehen! Gehen!"  She was pointing toward the plaza where a crew in orange coveralls was loading the last of the dead holiday trees into a big orange truck.  I did my version of running and, to the amusement of people in the plaza and the guys on the truck, I made it.  A laughing Austrian tree collector took Oh Tannenbaum and tossed it on the truck.

I'm glad we bought a slightly smaller tree this year.

Twas the night before Christmas . . . 
The excitement doesn't stop at the tree. I was recruited twice to don a red suit, once to play St. Nicholas and once to be the more familiar Santa.  As St. Nick I had to show up at a house for Misti's friends and read from a Golden Book for their two boys, ages 2 and 5.  The five-year-old, who is German and American (born in the US but his parents are German), then sang me a full version of Frosty the Snowman with a perfect British accent (he was raised in London).  He was more nervous than I was, so he had to sing with his back turned to me.  A few days later a desperate colleague at my workplace called and said the traditional Santa had bailed on him and he needed a Santa with an American accent for the institute's Christmas lunch the next day. They'd pay me with a bottle of booze. Please. Bitte.
 Keir and the Tree  

St. Nick
I agreed and then was told that the previous Santa, who didn't have an American accent, wowed the kids when he arrived on roller skates.  Did I have any such skills?  I offered to break some boards, but that wasn't considered to be in the Christmas spirit.

The actor in our family is Dylan, who once played a toy soldier for a Mannheim Steamroller concert.  I tried to channel his experience, but failed.  I read from the Golden Book as St. Nick and did the Ho Ho Ho thing and handed out gifts at the Christmas lunch (I was hoping for scotch, but instead was paid with a bottle of Sour Cherry Liqueur).

At a dinner a few nights later, a Russian couple who'd attended the lunch discovered that I had been Santa and offered this review: "Santa was very quiet."  My immediate thought was, "What do Russians know about Santa?," but I just told them that Santa didn't want to scare the kids.

A few days before Christmas, Misti and I were walking by the VolksOper in our neighborhood, and she noticed that they were selling tickets for that evening's Christmas concert.  The Oper is a big place that normally does light opera and musicals, and the theater is well respected.  So we went with high expectations for a good holiday concert.  It turned out to be more educational than entertaining.

Frost on the Woods
We learned that "The Little Drummer Boy" should never be sung in German as a dramatic piece.  We learned that "The 12 Days of Christmas" works better with the original words, not lines like, "Two gummy bears and a bottle of champagne from my Liebling"-- especially when sung by an over-the-top Mrs. Claus in a tight red sequin dress.  Also, Copland's "Fanfare for the Common Man" works better as an opening for the Olympics than it does for a Christmas Concert.  And, when badly played, it really doesn't work at all.  We left the VolksOper puzzled.

A few weeks before that, however, we were given tickets to an eclectic performance at Vienna's famed Konzert Haus, and that was spectacular.

Keir and I were returning from his school on the edge of the Vienna Woods after the cold weather arrived and saw the woods and the vineyards covered in frost.  It was beautiful.

In our wanderings during the holidays, we came upon many typical Christmas in Vienna sights, including a craftsman making jewelry out of melted glass, and the Votivkirche backlit by the sun.

Melting Glass
I also met a researcher for dinner at the Schloss in Laxenburg where I work, and took a photo of the summer palace as it looks at Christmas.

The IIASA Schloss
The Viennese are creative when it comes to window displays in the shops (see top photo) and restaurants, and the historic Black Camel restaurant apparently hired a frustrated but talented art student to do its holiday windows.  These were the best we saw this season.

We often write about the Viennese being rude and reserved, especially the older ones, but there was evidence of change last month.  As we walked through a market we came upon a bunch of what I assume to be younger Viennese.  Literally a bunch.  We're not sure what they were doing, but how rude can you be when you're dressed as a banana?


Misti and I spent New Year's Eve at our apartment, being boring.  But at the appointed hour, we leaned out the window and watched fireworks in every direction.  People were shouting, honking horns,  all of the usual stuff.  It was actually very entertaining, and it beat being assaulted by a troll pick pocket as happened last year.  Keir was out being rowdy with his friends and made it back before sunrise.

On the culture front, I learned that non-violence is part of the law in Austria.  I've switched from my karate class to krav maga, which is the Israeli self-defense system.  It is easier on the body than the other martial arts, so I recommend it for aging people who still enjoy hitting things.  During my first day of training, I was puzzled by a defensive move that had a "pause" built into it.  It went sort of like this:  A guy approaches from the front, grabs your shirt with both hands and starts shoving you backward.  In my previous training I learned to do all sorts of clever things to break free and, in the process, break the guy's nose.  It's all very fast and effective.
Austrian Banane

When I repeated that as part of this krav maga drill, the instructor stopped me and said I must back away after breaking free and that I couldn't hit my attacker.  "Why not?" was my response.  "Because it is illegal in Austria to strike somebody before you have asked them to stop and warn them that you will hit them if they don't,"  the instructor said.  "If you hit them, legally the violence will be your fault and you will have to pay the fine."

"You're kidding," I said.  He wasn't, he said.  I'm still sorting out what that means.  But the class is fun.

Keir Shooting 

Keir has applied to a bunch of colleges in the US and we are entering the "what are we going to be doing next year" phase.  If my contract is extended, Misti and I might stay, but that is up in the air.  We are both old enough that it will likely be difficult to find full-time work with benefits in the US, so we might not have the luxury of deciding to come home.  But a contract extension here is not a sure thing either, so we are living, as we have in recent times, in a sort of unattached way ... floating on the surface so we can quickly move in any direction with the currents.

Keir put together a photo portfolio for his college admissions process, so we spent some time out shooting pictures.  This one is of Keir at the Globe Museum Misti and I visited when we first arrived.  In this picture, Keir is in the ornate hallway leading into the museum.   I've also included one of my shots of globes of Venus.

Keir at the Globe Museum 
Venus x 5
We have decided that if we stay, we will travel more.  My sister runs an art school in Tuscany, so we must go there.  In several weeks we will head for Arles, France, to see Reeve, Melanie and Ocean.  I went to Venice when I lived in Europe as a kid, and I want to see it again (it is only a day's drive from here), and a friend from my years in Wiesbaden, Germany, now has an apartment there, so I will jump on a train and see that city again.

Sunbeam Alpine
Keir is off to Budapest this weekend as part of his school's "Knowledge Bowl" competition.  His specialty, beyond the family tradition of encyclopedic knowledge of rock and roll, is European and American history.  Later in the Spring he'll go to Kiev, Ukraine, for the big Knowledge Bowl competition.

That all sounds exotic, but we've now become so accustomed to living here that running off to Budapest for the weekend sounds sort of normal.

Finally, for my friends who I misspent my youth with in Germany, I've included a few of the cars I've come upon that you don't see much in the States.
Real Mini

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