Sunday, December 9, 2012

Politicians and Turkeys Abroad

The Christmas markets are open in Vienna, the streets are glowing with decorations, it is 25 Celsius and snow and ice cover the ground. In other words, we’re once again way behind with this blog.  So, to clear the way for the Christmas season, this is a quick update on recent events … mostly the election, with a nod to Thanksgiving.

Because Misti and I now reside in that part of the political spectrum that is beyond blue, we are considered by some to be radically liberal.   Not SDS members, mind you, but progressive to the point of annoying people who aren’t.   We really haven’t shifted much over the years, but the spectrum has.  Such is life.

 Illegal in Austria
With that as context, it was interesting to be a political junkie following the Obama/Romney contest from an ancient city that is the jewel of a “socialist” country that is part of a gaggle of socialist countries called Europe.  It is difficult to define socialism if you live in a godless, yet heavily Catholic, country with a “radical” green party that regularly bumps heads with a right-wing party that would give away Adolf Hitler bobble-head dolls at campaign rallies if they were legal.  The government here, despite all of those cursed socialists, is remarkably democratic, although more parliamentary than most Americans would feel comfortable with.  

The Viennese, as we have mentioned several times, are mostly grumpy people, despite living in what is constantly rated as the most livable city in the world.  A shopkeeper told us last week that the Viennese even have a word that describes their unique brand of whining about life.  It was an Austrian/German word we hadn’t heard before and can’t remember.

The shopkeeper is Viennese and was making fun of himself, but he said he only learned to appreciate his hometown after working as a chef at a game preserve in South Africa.  “You must have seen a lot of interesting things,” Misti said. “Only pots and pans,” the chef said.  “My family saw a lot.  I was working.”

But upon returning to Vienna, he saw the city anew and now doesn’t whine . . . or at least he smiles when he does it. Which has nothing to do with the election except for a lesson in perspective.  I’m not sure what the lesson is, but it is there, somewhere. 

A European Favorite 
And for a little more perspective and context, an American colleague at work asked a group of scientists over lunch in the schloss what they thought of Obama.   The scientists, from countries across the globe, supported Obama, although they all expressed disappointment that he didn’t get more done.  They couldn’t understand why someone like Romney was doing so well.  That view was common here and is tied to Republican positions on science, energy development, human rights, migration, reproductive rights … all the stuff that drives the right wing people in the US to call Europeans socialists, as if that were an automatic insult.

There was an exception.  A scientist from Poland was angry at Obama because the president apparently promised at some point that he would change the visa policy toward Poland so it would match the policy the US has toward Western Europe.  Obama didn’t do it, and the Polish researcher wouldn’t support him as a result.  He said many Polish Americans wouldn’t either.  Wonder if the Republicans knew.

We chronicled a couple of blogs ago our “Swinging for Obama” night of blues and rock at the Metropol nightclub.  That great night was sponsored by the Austrian chapter of Democrats Abroad, a group of volunteers whose main task was to provide information and web links that, for us, made voting in Virginia rather straightforward.

Hotel Regina
 After the fun night at the Metropol we attended a debate watch event at the elegant Hotel Regina near our old apartment.  This was the third debate, and given time differences, the gathering was actually the day after the live debate in the hotel's basement meeting room. As we’ve noted many times in this blog, ugly history lurks just below the surface in Vienna, and the Regina is no exception.  It served as the illegal headquarters of the Austrian Nazis as they plotted the annexation of Austria just before WWII.

We drank good Austrian beer as we watched the debate on a giant flat-screen TV.  I occasionally wondered what debates might have gone on in this meeting room some 74 years earlier.

We were then linked through a colleague at work with a reporter for FM-4  (or FM-Fear for those who are hip) to do expat interviews about the election.  The interviewer wanted to know about specific states, so I talked about Virginia in my segment (Jim's Interview), and Misti talked about South Dakota and Minnesota in hers (Misti's Interview).  You will have to wade through some German to get to us, but it might be interesting.

Misti has years of radio experience stemming from her days as the editor of Mindworks in Minneapolis, so she wisely suggested we go to the studio to do the interviews.  Discussions are always better when you can sit across from the interviewer and have an actual conversation.

FM-4 Studio
So we trooped off to . . . wait for it … the Funkhaus . . . where FM-4 is located, and did our bit for America. 

On election eve we went to the Golden Harp Irish Pub, which was so crowded with Democrats that we ended up once again in a basement.  We sat with a couple of Americans who have spent several years in Austria.  The woman is a nutritionist with the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency … something to do with radiating food.  She was raised in a Mormon family whose direct lineage went back to Brigham Young and whose grandfather knew Romney’s grandfather in Mexico. No longer Mormon, she was solidly for Obama.  Her husband, raised in a bizarre Christian cult family in the US, escaped and … years later … was in a Viennese Irish Pub waiting for election returns.

We made it to midnight and reluctantly went home. Rather than watch CNN, I went to bed with my laptop streaming election news through earphones.  It was about 5 a.m. here when it became clear Obama was going to win.  Misti was asleep, but woke up from a dream in which Romney won, and as she had gone to bed thinking Obama might lose, she at first tried to ignore that an election had even occurred and didn't ask who had won. Her day got much better. 

Local Coverage 
The next big event here was Thanksgiving.  I attended the annual Thanksgiving lunch at work … done in an elaborate palace room with 23 turkeys.   They typically have an American tell all of the Europeans what Thanksgiving is and why we celebrate it.  I did the talk two years ago, and a colleague from Washington, DC, did it last year.

This year, for some reason, a young Chinese researcher did the honors.  He’d lived in the US, he said, so he knew about Thanksgiving.  He then talked about a celebration he’d grown up with in China that had nothing to do with Thanksgiving, and we all were a little puzzled as we turned to our turkeys.  The highlight of the lunch was the moment an Austrian colleague had her first piece of pumpkin pie.  Austrians don't do pumpkin pie.  She claimed she liked it. 

First Pumpkin Pie Ever 

Misti couldn’t make it to the lunch, so we went to a Thanksgiving dinner, sponsored by the ever-active Democrats Abroad, at a nice Austrian restaurant.  Two American colleagues from work joined us … one brought her daughter.  So, we created an instant family, enjoyed lively conversation, and had a good night.
Thanksgiving in Vienna

And now on to Christmas. Nine days and counting until all three sons, Melanie and grandson Ocean arrive to spend the holidays with us. Unfortunately for us, Erin, Will, Colin and Henry will be celebrating in Maryland. As thrilling as the election might have been and as enjoyable as Thanksgiving proved to be, both pale next to the excitement of a family reunion. 

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Nazis Underground

After walking countless kilometers through Vienna (the ratio is 20-to-1 in Misti’s favor) and having free time not influenced by Keir’s student schedule, we are trying to broaden our horizons and look for adventures that involve more than strolling by Beethoven’s house, or hanging out in the same coffee house that Freud and Tolstoy used to frequent.  How jaded we’ve become.

So last Saturday, a gorgeous fall day, we jumped into the Kangoo, turned on the GPS, and programed in “Seegrotte,” the largest underground lake in Europe that is so big you can actually cruise upon it in a boat.  The lake is located in Hinterbrühl, a 6,000-year-old town I hadn’t heard of but should have. 

The Mine at Hinterbrül

To our surprise, the GPS machine said Hinterbrühl was a mere 17 kilometers from the center of Vienna – closer than the schloss I work in.  Off we went, and after driving a short way, we were in the scenic hills and woods on the west side of Vienna, and then, suddenly, we were there.  It was a bit like driving from downtown DC to Bethesda, or Minneapolis to St. Paul.

Hinterbrül is picturesque, but it is less an identifiable village and more a collection of buildings, old and new, scattered on steep hillsides among the trees of the Vienna Woods.  The lake, as we learned before we ventured out, is in the lower level of an old gypsum mine that dates back to 1848.  I had heard that this was the place used by the Nazis late in World War II to build fighters deep underground, safe from the increasingly frequent bombings by the Allies.

The Passageway
As we walked to the entrance, it occurred to us that an old gypsum mine used by the Nazis wasn’t the same as our visits to Luray Caverns in Virginia or Wind Cave in South Dakota’s Black Hills.  But the largest underground lake in Europe, natural or not, had promise, so we paid the 9 Euros, put on our coats, and headed into the darkness with our gruff Austrian tour guide.

One enters the mine through a 230-meter brick-lined passageway that is cold, narrow and looking every bit of its 164 years.  The guide warned us to watch our heads and our steps, as sometimes the walk is a bit slippery, but eventually the passage opened into a small cavern, or room.  The guide lectured in both German and English about gypsum mining (it’s used in fertilizer), and we learned that there were three levels to the mine. In 1912 miners broke through some rock on the lower level and suddenly 20 million liters of water from local springs flooded in, creating the lake.  The mine was closed shortly thereafter.

Deeper in the Mine 

We walked past the room where the miners ate dinner, then past the stables, where we learned that the 20 or so horses in the mine (used to power the hoists) were intentionally blinded before they were brought into the mine because they then behaved better in the darkness.

The Fuselage
Farther on we paused at an alcove that contained the corroding fuselage of a jet fighter, along with a model of the plane, and a few other aircraft body parts.  This was the He 162, the first jet fighter, developed by the Nazis near the end of WW II.  I’d heard about this plane when I was a kid (my dad was in the Air Force), but didn’t know much about it.  What I learned on the tour was horrifying … not because of the airplane itself but because of how it was manufactured in the cave.

The Plaque
As we wandered along, we heard mention of the 2,000 Italian prisoners of war, along with countless others from a nearby concentration camp, who worked in the cave building airplanes (not just the jet  but other Luftwaffe fighters).   There was a plaque on the wall of the cave system’s chapel commemorating the workers who were forced into the cave as laborers.

The Chapel
Misti and I looked at each other and started thinking about all of those people working and dying in this place, and once again we realized that no matter where you are in Vienna, or much of Austria, the ugly history is just below the surface – literally in this instance.  Our adventure to the cave suddenly felt more like a tour of a concentration camp.

The Factory 
A little more research revealed how justified that feeling was.  What the tour guide didn’t say (to his credit, he did use the phrase “those horrible times,” once), was that a satellite concentration camp to the much larger Mauthausen concentration camp near Linz was built in Hinterbrül in 1943 to move labor closer to the cave system, which was converted to an aircraft factory in 1944-45.  In the last months of the war, concentration camp inmates were force marched from other concentration camps to the mine; virtually none of them survived.  In 1945, 51 inmates were killed by the SS (in which the Austrians were disproportionately represented) in a single, awful incident just before they were to begin their march to the mine.  There is apparently a monument to these 51 souls erected in 1988 near the subterranean lake, but we didn’t see it.
Building a Jet

Outside the Entrance 
The airplane factory itself, we were told, was on the lower level, where the lake is now.  The Nazis pumped the water out, laid cement flooring, and started building fuselages for the fighters.  They could only build fuselages and other smaller parts because the cave system only has the one entrance …  the narrow, 230-meter long entrance passageway.  The fuselages barely fit through the passageway. The rails for the transport carts are still there.

In various places in the mine are signs with a symbol that consists of a crossed hammer and pick, with the letters “G” and “A” (see top photo).  The letters stand for “Glück Auf,” or “Good Luck.”  Mining in the 1800s was so dangerous “Gluck Auf” became the miner’s motto.  We imagined how cruel those words seemed to the forced laborers in the caves.

The Dragon Boat 
St. Barbara Room
We were shown a large room with candles and a religious icon, one of several Catholic shrines to Saint Barbara within the mine, and told that the Vienna Boys Choir occasionally sings there and as many as 2,000 listeners attend the concert – about the same as the number of prisoners and concentration camp inmates who worked in the mine at any one time. Then we went down a long staircase to the lake, which featured an anchored golden dragon boat used in the 1993 “Three Musketeers” movie.  The boat, along with a movie poster on a nearby wall, seemed eerily out-of-place.  At the end of the tour, we rode around the lake on a tourist boat for 20 minutes as the guide pointed out a fountain, the wall the water had come through back in 1912, and a handful of other sites.

But it was hard to pay attention.  There were too many ghosts.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Superfly On The Danube

When we first arrived in Vienna in 2010, one of the biggest surprises was the music.   Vienna was home to Mozart, Strauss, Beethoven and other composers and musicians whose work defines Western classical music.  Indeed, the streets of the First District are replete with costumed Mozarts selling tickets to the many performances of his work.

Mozart in Vienna
The other traditional music here is German/Austrian folk and band music that is just a step removed from American polka and square dance and is typically played happily with tubas or sousaphones  (I have a recurring image of Mozart, in lederhosen, slap dancing [Schuhplatter] in a Viennese bier hall.  It must have happened).  It isn’t unusual to see bands playing German drinking music as you walk around downtown.

I lived in Germany when I was a kid, so I’m familiar with the traditional music, and although I’m a rube when it comes to classical music, I do know the major players.   With that background, I turned on my new Austrian radio back in 2010.  There was no Mozart or Beethoven.  Nor did I hear sousaphones. Instead it was Chubby Checker, the Tokens, Joey Dee and the Starlighters, and a slew of lesser-known American “artists”.  What was truly odd was Chubby Checker wasn’t singing “the Twist,” the Tokens weren’t singing “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” and Joey Dee and the boys weren’t doing “Shout” or “The Peppermint Twist.” The radio stations in Vienna seemed to have the greatest collection of the “B” sides of obscure old American pop records imaginable. 
Joey Dee 

The tunes were “B” sides for a reason.  The songs were mostly awful and I wondered why they were being played.  The answer came when Keir discovered “rock” music sung in German.  Listening to a few of those songs helped explain.  Even atrocious old American songs were better than many of the European rock tunes.

Of course the British rock and pop music rates highly.  Who could dis the country that brought us the Beatles and the Rolling Stones and a host of other first-rate rockers? But they don’t get much airtime either.

An Australian colleague at IIASA who was addicted to Joni Mitchell (not a bad thing) and candles in her office eventually alerted me to FM4, the cool, hip radio station that has disc jockeys from England and Austria. Their on-air conversations shift between English and German in the space of a few seconds. They assume a lot of their audience.

“FM Fear” was a godsend.  The music is progressive and mostly American, with the good European tunes – and there are some -- mixed in. The on air talent – be it Nina of Austria or Stuart of England – is entertaining.  On the hour there is news in English, usually read by a Brit, and on the half hour – depending on which half hour – there is news in French or German. 

The message from all of this? If you want to find a field in which America still leads the world, listen to music almost anywhere.  Much of it will be American.  With some notable exceptions, when you listen to the other stuff, you know why.

We have attended a classical concert or two since we’ve been here, listened to traditional German/Austrian music played on the streets, and been to a jazz show by an American singer.  But, given the prices of concerts, our live music experiences have been limited.

So imagine our excitement when we came across “Swingin’ for Obama,” a night of rock and blues at the hip Vienna nightclub Metropol.  The price of admission was a donation to the Obama campaign (for U.S. citizens) or 25 Euros for EU citizens.  We arrived, bought our Obama T-shirts (again, only U.S. citizens as the proceeds went to the campaign and no foreign money is allowed), and were immediately blown away by American singer and piano player Joey Green and his soul review, known as RayVille (see top photo).  Ray Charles tunes, followed by more Ray Charles tunes, and capped off with Percy Mayfield’s “Hit The Road, Jack,” filled the club.  The Jolettes, the Austrian version of the Raylettes – in red dresses of course – were exactly what they were supposed to be.

The T-shirt

As we used to say back in my rock band days, “these guys can play.”   And RayVille was just the opening act.   There were six other acts, including “Big John” Whitfield  and Carole Alston.  When Big John did James Brown’s “It’s a Man’s World,” followed by “Sex Machine,” … well, you had to be there.  And to make sure this was an American night, there was a set by J. Reuben Silverbird, who took a break from preparing his one man show, “Memories of Geronimo,” to sing love songs from his new CD, “Ageless Love.”

Silverbird Sings
Sitting in a hot Vienna nightclub with 300 or so mostly Americans listening to a Native American singing love ballads in between sets of Ray Charles and James Brown is . . . not typical.    The love ballads were wanting, but when Silverbird performed a traditional Apache chant, with the audience participating, it somehow worked.

Müller and "Big John"
The stars of the night were the Austrian backup band – The Surfing Zebras -- who blew the house down on almost every song.   They bill themselves as a “groovin’ bugaloo band,” but they were shifting gears and playing complex blues, soul, jazz, rock, and even show tunes from charts, for several hours.  The lead Zebra, Tom Müller, is a stunningly good sax player.

We came out of the Metropol around midnight with our Obama T-shirts, enormous amounts of energy, and the joy that comes from hours of watching fine blues and jazz musicians working hard.

And since that night I’ve added an unlikely Vienna radio station to my auto tune buttons in the Kangoo: Superfly Radio.  The station, an ode to the 1972 movie, is all R&B, all the time.  Doesn’t quite go with a drive along the Danube, but goodness is the music good.