Sunday, August 26, 2012

The Confusion of Personal Art

Expat Year 3, a phrase we never would have predicted in the summer of 2010 when we fled unemployment for what we expected to be only a year-long adventure in economic survival.   The first two years, as displaced Americans who didn’t speak German or know Viennese culture and had zero preparation for a hurried move across the ocean, we were immersed in a strange brew of excitement and trepidation; expectation, discovery, thrills, and disillusionment marked the months. This was perhaps especially true for me as Jim immediately began his work at an English-speaking institute and Keir was thrown sink or swim style into the currents of the American International School.  Me, the trailing spouse?  I was utterly isolated.

For two years, I’ve walked the streets of Vienna (given that prostitution is legal here, let me rephrase that). For two years, I’ve explored Vienna, often by myself.  I’ve put thousands of kilometers on these calloused, bunioned feet. I’ve looked up and looked out and met people and embarrassed myself and found delights in small corners and awe in the beauty to be found in architecture and statuary, an elegance  made more intriguing by its contrast with the haze of ugly history that still hangs in the Vienna air.

Year 2, I met more and more people, but people with whom I could speak English, people to whom I could finally express myself truly and without misunderstanding or hesitation.  Unlike a character in Malamud’s “The German Refugee” my tongue no longer “hung useless.” I was a human being again, complicated and aggravating and articulate and silly.  I still walked, but in a different direction, still embarrassed myself, but cared less.

Figs in the Rain 
Now, it’s Year 3, and as Jim mentioned in the last blog, it feels different. It’s not just the new apartment that we love and feel so at home in (it’s a dark, rainy day and opening the windows above the turtles and watching the rain bounce on the apples and figs and plums in the abundant trees and leaning out, taking in the smells, was heaven).

It’s not just the reality of having friends, understanding the environment, not just being empty nesters. This year, the questions are not only about continuing to discover Vienna but also about exploring how this ongoing experience has changed us, not young people but older people, 59 and 62, an age at which some things seemed “set,” immutable.

For those who read our first blogs, you might remember my discovery that despite my basically non-materialistic attitude, that first year, I really missed my things. Art, my piano, piano music (few things are more intriguing to me than a sheet of music), gifts from my husband and the stories connected to those gifts.

Chase and Statue 
I missed my Grecian garden statue that crazy, extravagant Jim bought me more than 20 years ago. It weighs about 700 pounds (we can't find a proper picture, but the statue can be seen in the distance, just beyond our dog Chase) and Jim bought it after seeing me throw my arm around her shoulders and declare her my sister.

After he bought it, he needed to get the surprise home, so he stopped in at a Minneapolis gym and enlisted the help of overly confident weight lifters. No hernias that we know of, but those brutes finally dropped her in the grass, and let her roll; big, muscular guys, sweaty, achy and humbled, her expression unchanging, sweet but inscrutable. When we moved her to Virginia -- yes, in August in the horrible D.C. heat -- the movers swore because she broke one of their trolleys. They planted her nestled up against our new wall, and said I’d be better be happy because they damn well weren’t about to move her again. She’s still in Virginia, “holding down the fort,” as my dad would say.

The Clock
I missed my things and the history they represented. So, this year, before we went home we thought about bringing things back.  This is more difficult than you might imagine because our possessions are packed up and stored away in a variety of locations – closets in our home off-limits to our renters, in family attics, spread around in friends’ homes.  Sometimes I lie in bed and try to remember what was on which wall of our home, which figures stood where. And sometimes I can’t remember.

Ancient Chest
So, we grabbed what was handy -- a couple of photographs by Minnesota photographer Jim Brandenburg, famous for his photographs of wolves, that we bought in a cosy gallery in Luverne, Minnesota, on our drives to and from South Dakota; small artwork done by my artist son Reeve years ago; my favorite photograph of me and 9-month-old Keir. We brought them to Vienna, and although the glass broke in transit, and we haven’t replaced it yet, here they are.

And they don’t feel right. They seem awkward, out of place.

The art in this flat is levels above the art we lived with in the old place. I try not to criticize people’s choices of art in their homes. I remind myself that aesthetics are deeply personal, rooted in ineffable sources and emotions. The instinct to beautify, to personalize, that’s what’s important.
Classic Scene

The Depths of Winter
The art here includes some fine classical paintings, an ancient chest, an antique clock. For most of my life, I’ve tended more toward modern art and style; the intellectual stimulation contemporary art, music and furnishings often affords, the exasperation, the occasional transcendence move me. But now, I’m less dismissive of more classical works.

Now, I’m confused.

Prairie Grass
So, the color photograph of a Minnesota farm in the depths of winter, that looks like a black-and-white photo and represents a landscape once so familiar, is now leaning juxtaposed beneath a more classical scene. My eye flicks between them, and I no longer know which I prefer. 

Still Life 
And then the still life of flowers or the photo of prairie grasses? The small traditional portrait of a man I don’t know, or Reeve’s multi-media work of a man I don’t know? The painting of a woman that reveals nothing about her as wife or mother or the photograph of me as both?

 Hmmm.  I know I don’t have to choose, but some change is afoot and I can’t predict what will elicit a reaction from me in the months to come. We have so much of Vienna, and beyond that the neighboring cities and countries, still to explore and ruminate about and create lasting impressions of. The third year question seems to be: Who will we become, expats far from home, daily imbibing the sights, sounds, smells, attitudes, history of Vienna?  What will speak to us?

Other Man
Jim just reminded me that we already have a hint. The photo at the top of the blog is of a monotype titled, “The Road to Vienna,” done by friend and artist Tom Hipschen, who engraved most of the images on American money you see every day,  as well as many of the U.S. stamps you've admired over the years.  The monotype was his way of thanking us after he and his wife Patti stayed with us last year when they were at an engravers’ conference.  This piece seems “right” somehow, fitting our new environment, speaking to our more recent history.

Jim has always maintained that when you feel too comfortable, it’s time to move on.  Given my perplexity about my things and our continuing fascination with Vienna, that time won’t come too soon. Who knows where we’ll be or who we’ll be at the end of Year 3.
Mom, 1993

Mom (?) circa 1843

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Uwe's Garden of Wonder

This morning, before heading off to the Wรคhringerstrasse apartment for last minute wall repair, painting and cleaning, I wandered through the garden of our new place.  Last week I described it as Uwe’s garden of wonder, and it truly is that.

I described it to a former editor of mine back in the States a few weeks back in an email and he accused me of writing fiction.   He made a comment to the effect that if half of what I told him was true then it must be an unusual, special place.

I do write fiction on occasion, but it is properly labeled as such.  So for Steve’s benefit (you know who you are), here is a tour of the garden and our new apartment.  Let me do this in order, because I’m not sure which parts Steve didn’t believe.

First, before we get to the garden, I want to introduce the plant in our living room.   It is a rubber tree that Uwe, our landlord, told us dates back to just after WW II, when his father rescued it from somewhere.  That makes it more than 60 years old and, as I told Steve, it stretches across our living room ceiling.
The Rubber Tree

Our main responsibility as tenants is keeping the tree alive.  We must water it twice a week, each time using half the water in a container Uwe has provided.  When the container is empty, we set it outside the door and Uwe refills it with water from his rain barrel, which sits out back by the tomatoes, roses and the fig tree in the garden of wonder.

We have a small sitting/TV room off our bedroom, and off the sitting room is a modest balcony.  For the moment it provides us an outdoor place to dry clothes (remember, there are almost no dryers in Austria), but once we’re settled, it will be a pleasant place to just sit and be.

The Balcony
 Behind the house is a rocked in area with box turtles … at least I think they are box turtles.  A bunch of them live there … how many seems to be a point of contention between Uwe and his wife, so he only admits to five or so.  I think the “or so” could double or triple the number.  They’re hard to count because they have shelters they go into, and, of course, once you’ve seen one turtle . . 
Box Turtle Breakfast

So, after the turtles, you head down what Uwe believes is a path.  I’m not so sure, but I think he cut it with the machete he has in his Land Rover (that’s fiction).  As you push through the branches, past the tomato plants, you hear the hum of bees.

The Path 
The Hives
There are three human-made bee hives in the garden.  Uwe just reduced them in size for the coming winter, but normally there are 70,000 bees or more in each.  He gets honey four times a year, and as we’ve already received a jar as a welcome present, we can attest to its delicious taste.

Farther down that path are two ponds, both filled with European pond turtles.  They are also hard to count because as soon as you approach they dive into the pond.  But the number is assuredly higher than five.
European Pond Turtles

Past the ponds, is the large chicken coop with a half dozen or so exotically colored chickens.   Alas, the rooster that has entertained us is now gone after there were complaints about the rooster crowing at all hours of the day in the middle of the city.  Legal action was threatened and Uwe had to give the rooster to his brother, who owns a farm outside of town.  “I lost my cock,” a distraught Uwe said (not fiction). I kept a straight face.

The Chickens
Turn left at the chicken coop and then left again to head back toward the house and you arrive at a bust of Uwe’s great grandfather (we think), who was the last accountant for the last emperor.  The bust was somewhere important, but Uwe absconded with it and moved it to the garden.  His great grandfather looks like he was a nice guy.

Great Grandfather

The garden has fig trees, but the figs aren’t doing well because of a late frost last spring.  There is also an apple tree and I’m sure many more wonders that we haven’t yet discovered.

Our new street is called Sternwartestrasse, which translates to “Observatory Street” because just up the hill is the University of Vienna observatory, from which one can look through telescopes and see stars … if you have an appointment.  We’re working on that. 

Our Gated Entry
We have a gate to get into our place, so we are feeling very upscale … but we discovered you need keys to get out, as well as in, and I think that says something about Vienna, but I’m not sure what.

We also have a little door that opens in the wall over the kitchen sink so you can see out into the street (see top picture).  It is a way to spy on your neighbors.  That’s Viennese, too. (Actually, it’s so that we can see guests arrive, so we can press the magic button that opens the gate.)

I expect a full apology from Steve.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Vienna, Year Three

Months have passed since we sat in the Filmcasino, enthralled by Lillian Gish in “The Wind.”  We apologize for neglecting this blog for so long, but life has been transitional.  We are in Vienna for yet another year—number three for those who are counting—but circumstances have very much changed.

As I sit on the small outside balcony of our new apartment, grapes and a Stiegl beer on the table next to my computer, several generations of an Austrian family are just across the hedge, lounging by their pool on a hot Vienna day.  Our new landlord, Uwe (a retired Jungian psychologist or psychiatrist, we’re not sure which) is at work in his garden of wonders.  Just below our living room window is a rock enclosure with a bale of box turtles.

Wander though the jungle of the back yard and you hear a hum, or buzz, then realize there are a couple of hundred thousand bees in hives. Every now and then we smell the smoke as Uwe quiets the bees to gather honey.

Our new apartment is amazing, not to mention less expensive, than the Wahringerstrasse place, so we are glad we’ve moved.   Wahringerstrasse was big enough that Keir had his own room, own toilet, and own entry door … that is unusual and we’re sure he took advantage of his private door more than we know.

We’ll do an entire blog, complete with turtle pictures, on our new apartment. 

Enough things have changed that I’ll use bullet points to go through them:

Keir & Misti

  • ·      Keir graduated from the American International School in a class of 71 from 20 countries.  Graduation was in the Mozart Hall at the Konzerthaus.  One of the small benefits of the rational drinking age in Austria (16) is that all of the seniors could have a champagne toast to celebrate their graduation.
  • ·      After driving us crazy with his “What is the point of school?” attitude through much of his senior year, Keir managed to get into most of the colleges he applied to, and will start shortly at American University in Washington, DC.  That’s where I went to school, but based on the bills coming our way, there is no alumni favoritism.  He’s majoring in photojournalism and media arts and likely will use the same darkroom I used back in the early 70s.
  • ·      My contract with the IIASA communications department was not extended for a third year (the website I’ve been working on is essentially done, but is caught in a weird loop of scientific and cultural peer review typical of many international organizations), but the head of the World Population division hired me on a one year contract to write for his group.  I’ve moved to a new office in the Schloss.  The writing promises to be more intriguing than what I’ve been doing.
  • ·      Misti is slowly recovering from jet lag, reading depressing books about European history (Poland, this time), and plotting how to not only survive but thrive in her first year as an empty nester.  Goal one is to resume studying German with the drive she possessed the first year and utterly lost the second.
We’ve been neglecting our cameras as well as our blog, so the photos here focus mostly on our recent  annual visit to the States.  But it is worth mentioning that Keir finished up the school year in part by reviving his baseball career.  He hadn't played in a couple of years because of a bad throwing arm, but he was recruited because he was one of nine people at the school who actually knew how to play.  The team had a terrible start to the season. Cricket and fuss ball players tend to look like little leaguers when they step onto a baseball field for the first time.  No, you don't carry your bat to first base after you hit the ball.

Keir batting in Vienna
I don't think the team had won a game when they headed off to Frankfurt for the European championship tournament.  "Eight hours on the train and we won't score a run," Keir moaned as I dropped him off at Westbahnhoff station.  But the report came the next day that they'd defeated Tel Aviv 2 to 1.  The next report we got was that they'd made it to the championship game, where they were defeated by the Hague.  Keir came home with a silver medal.

When asked how it happened, Keir said the coach put the nine guys who grew up playing baseball  on the field all at once.  They surprised themselves.

We were in DC for much of July, where we enjoyed much too short a time with Erin, Will, Colin and their new family member, Henry.
Henry's the little guy 

We then ventured off to Misti’s home ground of South Dakota, where the heat was even worse than it was in DC and the crops were dying from lack of rain.  I study climate change as part of my job, and it is stunning to see all of the scientific predictions I’ve been reading and writing about since the 1980s coming true in a very scary way.  And it is only going to get worse.  More on that at a later date.

Keir managed to get his annual fix of shooting clay pigeons with a shotgun (he had to shoot them before they melted in the heat), hung around with his cousins, and earned a little college money painting his grandpa’s house and working for his uncle. 

We also met Trapper (see top photo), the big lab that lives with Misti's sister, Lois, and her husband Ron.

Keir and the pigeon
After three weeks in the US, Misti and I are back in Austria, Keir’s had a week with brother Dylan in New York City, and we are trying to find a new rhythm to life.

A final thought.  Our first year of blogs were written from the point of view of visitors living in a strange land.  We’ve been here long enough now that this feels a little like home.  We were struck in the US by the noise, the cars, and the difficulty of getting anywhere by walking.  The European lifestyle is far from perfect, but it is much more attuned to how people live their daily lives.  More on that later, too.

We hope to return to our almost-weekly schedule with the blog.  Heartfelt thanks to the friends and family who welcomed us into their homes, assisted with the onslaught of our practical challenges with impressive humor and thoughtfulness, and reminded us of all we hope to return to sometime in the future.