Monday, July 22, 2013

Bratislava, Tuscany and Out of Africa

Driving into Vienna a few weeks ago from a week-long road trip to Tuscany and last week from an excursion to Mauthausen, a Nazi concentration camp, I had the warm sensation of going “home.”  That I could feel so comfortable, especially given the radical distinctions between the two venues, spoke volumes about Year Three of ex-pathood, the year in which the adrenalin rush of the first year and the slight bafflement of the second transformed into the  “ahh” moments of the third.

Ironic, given that just as Vienna has become home, we’re returning to our real home in Virginia in five hectic days. Fortuitous, given that if we were to spend another year here, our roots would burrow more deeply into the soil of this stimulating, contradictory, maddening, extraordinary, graceful and graceless city.

Misti in Pietrasanta
The absence of blogs bespeaks the normalcy of our life here. The year was rife with work – I’ve had students every day of the week, which seriously curtailed our explorations, and Jim, despite being officially on vacation is still editing a researcher’s paper and a massive demography book destined for Oxford Press. And although pangs of loneliness remain a daily reality, especially given the distance we are from our families and friends, we have people in our lives here whom we cherish. And that, more than any familiarity with and adaptation to a foreign culture, is what home is all about.

That mixture of home here and there was sweetly realized in June when Karen and Reuben from Minneapolis, friends of 30 years, visited the week of my 60th birthday. Birthday eve was spent drinking and laughing (and laughing more as we drank more) in a centuries-old wine cellar, where I was serenaded by a violin/accordion duo who had been tipped off as to my birthday. They regaled us with, of course, American tunes, how fitting and how sad. The next morning we headed off in the Kangoo for Bratislava, Slovakia, a town we had visited only once before with Keir.
Michelangelo's House, Tuscany

It was an utterly gorgeous day and we simply wandered through the much smaller city with yet another ancient and tragic history, a ragged town that lacks the veneer of Vienna, which might be why I feel so comfortable there.  As usual, I engaged in conversation with several of the people we met in stores and in restaurants, and in each case, the sense of struggle was pervasive regardless of the age.  At the top of a historic tower, I spoke at length with an expat from England, who has made Bratislava his home and fears that dirty Russian money being laundered through the development of substandard and aesthetically challenged construction is damaging the city irretrievably. The inevitable clash of the old and the new, the innocent and the corrupt.

Misti, Karen, Ruben
Had I spent my birthday only with Jim, it would have been a great day, but sharing it with a woman who saw me through the tumultuous years of becoming a mother, an ex-wife, a new wife, and again, a mother at 40, all while we both struggled to rise from inauspicious beginnings as peons in the hellhole known as a newsroom, added the historical perspective a milestone birthday needs. More than anyone, Karen has seen my personal trajectory, and I’ve watched as she has dealt with the deaths of siblings, maintained an extraordinary marriage with the love of her life, and been subjected to the pathological power of managers far less intelligent, talented and ethical than she.  Throughout it all she has maintained her fundamental decency and her unfettered curiosity. Reading her remarkable master’s synthesis in which she has encapsulated her unique view of houses and homes, literal and figurative, was the best birthday present of all; no one but Karen could have written those pages.
Dancing, Bratislava

Our new Vienna (not necessarily Viennese) friends don’t share such an extensive history, but by existing for us only in the now, they, too, grace our lives.  Here’s Jim on his recent adventure with a man whose presence we will miss, our landlord, Uwe:

We have written in the past about Uwe’s Garden of Wonder, a backyard jungle that is home to turtles, bees, chickens, toads, and goodness knows what else.  Uwe was an adventurer in his youth, cruising through the Sahara and other parts of Africa in a 1970 Land Rover that he bought almost new in Vienna (see top image).  In addition to Africa, he and his wife drove more than a dozen times to Turkey where, in Uwe’s words, “We lived as gypsies, going where we wanted and sleeping in the back (of the Land Rover).”
Imagine the Sahara 

He was touring Morocco with a woman friend from Sweden when he was arrested for carrying a pistol.  He was handcuffed and driven 1,000 km (in the Land Rover, with the Swedish woman) by two Moroccan cops.  When they arrived in Rabat for his trial (before a military tribunal), the woman (not under arrest) quickly called the Austrian ambassador, who showed up for the hearing.

Uwe said they stood him before the tribunal, all men in military uniforms, and demanded to know why he had the pistol. He told them he was driving in Africa with a woman and needed the gun to protect her.

At the Grain Elevator
Almost immediately they agreed that he indeed did need the gun, that protecting the woman was honorable, and let him go.

That large green Land Rover now sits in Uwe’s driveway, looking every bit like a set piece from a Hollywood movie.  Uwe, at 77, is losing his sight and can’t drive it any longer.  “But I can’t let it go,” he said to me a few months ago.

I offered to drive him through the Vienna Woods if he could get the beast legal again.  He smiled and asked if I really thought I could drive it.  No power steering, he noted. No power brakes.  No synchronizer between first and second gear.  I’m an old guy.  My first car was a Hillman Minx.  I thought I could manage.

A year's supply
A month or so ago, Uwe, smile on his face, said he needed to pick up 130 kilos of feed for his chickens.  We could do it in the Land Rover, he said, so we arranged a time – 9 a.m. on a Thursday morning.  I met him in the garden at the appointed time and his first words were, “You still want to do this?  You think you can?”

A small-scale adventure
The Land Rover really is a beast, especially in Vienna traffic.  I was trying to recall how to double clutch as I listened to gears grind with every attempted shift into second.  Again and again.   I stood on the brakes for a pedestrian, then a tram.  This was work, not driving.  “It’s better in the desert,” Uwe said.  “More room.”

We made it out of town and eventually relaxed into tales of Uwe’s adventures.  The Land Rover doesn’t go over 70 km per hour, he said, but I got it up to 80 to pass a truck.  “This is good,” Uwe said.  “It likes you.”

We loaded up the bags of corn and wheat at a grain elevator about 15 km outside of Vienna and made it back home … the return trip smoother than the outgoing one.  It wasn’t Africa, but it was an adventure.


  1. Hi, I was reading through your site late last night while obsessing about our upcoming move to Vienna. Do you think you could email me with some inside views of your son's school? I would appreciate it.

  2. Hey Misti,
    My name is Joe Pinzone and I'm casting an international travel show about expats moving abroad. We'd love to film in Austria and wanted to know if you could help us find expats who have moved there within the last 15 months or have been there for 3-4 years, but recently moved into a new home. The show documents their move to a new country and will place the country in fabulous light. The contributors on the show would also receive monetary compensation if they are filmed. If you'd like more information, please give me a call at 212-231-7716 or skype me at joefromnyc. You can also email me at Looking forward to hearing from you.

    Joe Pinzone
    Casting Producer
    P: 212-231-7716
    Skype: Joefromnyc