Vienna Fingers

A New Yorker tastes the Viennese life for ten weeks

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The Door

"Either you will go through this door or you will not go through.

The door itself makes no promises. It is only a door.”

I came upon this quote in my reading for class, in a book that quoted this quote, so pretty indirectly. But I really like it.

Although its original intention was to address prospective immigrants (it comes from a poem entitled “Prospective Immigrants Please Note” by Adrienne Rich), I think any and everybody would do well to heed the advice.

I personally related it directly to my experience here in Vienna, and studying abroad in general. (As I enter my final days overseas I have admittedly become more reflective and sentimental.) The door is the opportunity, and the decision to go through or not is a decision to take on the opportunity. But taking on the opportunity does not automatically mean that the experience will automatically be good or worthwhile- it makes no promises about what lays on the other side.

When I came to Europe, I was walking (okay, maybe enthusiastically sprinting) through a door. I didn’t know what to expect, and I don’t think that I expected any promises about how I would feel about it in the end. I think it’s important to remember this absence of guarantee through every thing I do, and not do, here. I remember that it’s up to me to make the best of what is on the other side of the door.

In actuality, the Door is the life we are given, being born. That’s the opportunity. Life makes us no promises. There’s no idea inherent in being alive that guarantees it will be a good and fulfilling life, so we must work to make it that way.

Sorry for the sentimentality, ya’ll. Things are clicking and I thought I’d pass it on.

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Christmas time is apparently here

I’m used to the Christmas season beginning weeks before the actual holiday, but it seems to have arrived a bit earlier in Vienna. I suppose they don’t have Thanksgiving to act as a buffer holiday, but Christmas season appeared by the second week of November.

The Christmas culture in Austria is dominated by Christkindlmarkts (literally “Christ child market”) or Christmas markets, which are street markets that celebrate the four weeks of Advent (which clearly has evolved to be more than four weeks). The tradition of Christmas markets dates back to the Late Middle Ages and originated in German speaking regions. The Vienna markets can be dated back to as early as 1294.The stalls in the markets usually feature Christmas-related crafts and decorations, warm food, sweets, and of course the best for last, Glühwein. Glühwein is mulled wine; hot, sweet, and delicious, it is the perfect drink and hand warmer for the increasingly cold weather.

Rathaus (City Hall) market, facing the Burgtheater.

While concept of Christmas markets has clearly spread to other parts of the world, it has a deeply-rooted tradition in German lands and has a long history in Vienna. The springing up of these festive markets in central and significant locations, such as at the town hall and in our University’s courtyard, has really enriched my experience for my last couple of weeks here. There’s not much better than strolling through the markets as the evening rolls around and the festive lights turn on, Glühwein in hand and happy people around. I may not celebrate the holiday, but I will be sure to mooch off of the Christmas spirit.

Maria Theresia Platz at night. Not pictured is a horns quartet playing Christmas songs.

Delicious. And gotta love the environmentally-friendly mugs.

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Know Thyself

I tend to disregard most exaggerations that involve the phrase “life-changing experience.” At least when it is being used most seriously and not in the cutesy appropriate way, for example in the way that you would say that listening to your first Radiohead album is a life-changing experience. I’m talking about when people go abroad in Europe for three months and then claim their entire existence has been shaken to its core and will forever be something new, usually something more cultural, spiritual, and worldly.

That being said, I think I’m having a life-changing experience over here.

Bear with me. I don’t mean to make sweeping generalizations about how eye-opening a foreign culture is or how amazingly romantic European streets are at night. Instead I want to say a few things about myself. It’s not life-changing in the common use of the term. I don’t really think I will come back to the U.S. a changed person. On the contrary, I think that I will come out of my time abroad being more aware of the person I always was. And that is life-changing because of how extremely important it is to be conscious of yourself and why you are the way you are.

I don’t know why living in Austria for almost 2 months has been so conducive to my self-exploration. I don’t even think I’ve consciously done any exploring. I think that being separated from a routine and a culture that I was so subconsciously enmeshed in really helped to remove myself from, well, myself. When you’re thrust into a brand new city with a brand new language on a brand new continent, all that is familiar is yourself. But your own self is only familiar relative to your surroundings. You soon realize that you don’t know yourself as well as you assumed you did. But you learn fast.

A few of the many things I’ve become aware of, and have begun to try to embrace, about myself:

I feel better when I have activities scheduled for myself. I really used to think that I preferred to be spontaneous and not plan ahead, especially because of my chronic procrastination. Now I notice that I feel more secure and balance when I can look forward to going somewhere or doing something ahead of time.

I really value punctuality. I may not be the most punctual always, but I really respect people who are and think that relative to most people, I’m pretty on time. If I say I will be somewhere at a certain time, I really do my best to be there at that time, if only out of respect for the others involved.

I love learning. I know I go to the University of Chicago so this fact should be a given, but I sometimes lose sight of it when I’m juggling four classes and tons of other commitments on campus. Being in Vienna and taking one class (German doesn’t count) really lets me focus on soaking up as much knowledge as possible. Being able to apply that knowledge to the actual places and things around me really helps to foster that interest and intensity. I used to tell myself I hated history, mostly because I felt that I was so bad at it. But I’ve really enjoyed all of the history I’ve done here- it’s really refreshing and interesting in a way I’ve never been able to embrace before.

There are so many more things, you’ll be glad to know, that I think I’ve been able to internalize, these are just a sampling. Can’t give away all of my new secrets.

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Johann Sebastian Bach/Charles Gounod, Ave Maria

My musical discovery of the day. Heard at an organ concert at Peterskirche. It was a really surreal moment, hearing the organ echoing through the beautifully Baroque walls of the church. A totally secular spirituality swept through me.

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Crib 15

Since this is a travel blog, sort of, I figured Id try to update as I travel outside of Vienna. This will be short, in part because I am meeting up with friends shortly and mostly because this keyboard is really difficult to navigate. No apostrophes for now, so I will try to keep the contractions to a minimum.

Arrived in Prague late last night. Almost had a disaster moment when I left my debit card in the ATM at the train station without noticing, but a kind gentleman ran after me to return it. It took us a while to track down our hostel, but we made it and had a really satisfying nights sleep. This is only the second hostel I have stayed in, but it is pretty sweet. Continental breakfast, free wi-fi, and good classic rock playing in the lobby. All for the low price of $8 a night.

Maybe I will post some more from the road, I will try to make some worthy stories to write about.

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A Mid-Quarter Reflection on the Less Important Things

Things absent in my life abroad:

What I Miss

Mexican food. I know I shouldn’t expect Austria to be a haven for Latin American cuisine, but I love the food too much not to miss it. To be fair, I recently spotted a Mexican restaurant near campus, which seems to even offer free chips with a pitcher of beer. That is on the immediate to-do list.

Jersey Shore. It’s a necessary guilty pleasure and MTV Europe, probably with good reason, doesn’t air it. Has Snookie been getting her smush smush? Are Sammi and Ron still being idiots? These are all burning questions that I am in the dark about.

Paying for everything with plastic. For reasons that were attempted to be explained to me but that I still do not understand, credit/debit cards are not widely used here. I’m forced to be a slave to the ATM, a machine that is a constant reminder of how quickly money vanishes.

What I Don’t Miss

Inefficient public transportation. I’ve patiently used the MTA and CTA my whole life, but only now do I see their shortcomings. The public transit system in Vienna is ranked as one of the best in the world, and my personal experience would have me agree that that’s not an exaggeration. I usually never have to wait more than about 6 minutes for the U-Bahn, and it’s more often than not less than that. The only downside is that the underground stops running at 12:30am on weekdays- the Catholic state is against our weekday partying.

Tequila. I don’t drink tequila, which is why I don’t really mind that it’s very hard to find for a reasonable price here. But maybe if there were more tequila there would be more Mexican food, in which case I’d be down.

Taxes. Well, technically they exist here, but everything you buy has the tax included in the price you see listed. It really makes all the more difference. What you see is what you pay.

The things I miss about American culture are pretty superficial, and all in all I think life here is not so bad at all. People can definitely survive without making fun of guidos and devouring tortilla chips.

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A Productive Weekend

For the first time in Vienna I spent each day of the weekend doing at least one new and exploratory thing, which feels really nice. I’m not here to stay in bed all day, as tempting as that is after a long night out. It really feels like there is enough to do to find something new to do every day, at least on the free days on weekends. The tricky part sometimes is finding something cheap or free, which I did manage to accomplish this weekend.

On Friday I actually put the 3.5 hour break in-between classes to good use. (It is often spent napping. I have yet to find logic in having German class at 8:30am, especially when Civ doesn’t start until 1:30.) I went to the Frida Kahlo exhibit at the Kuntsforum; after having learned about Frida in Spanish classes and generally being interested in her life story, it was really nice to be able to see her work in person. What I particularly enjoyed, of course in addition to her surreally awesome paintings, was the part of the exhibit which showcased photographs taken of her by her many photographer-friends. She really is a stunningly beautiful woman, uni-brow and all, and she really knows how to pose for a picture. I think she’s all the more beautiful for all of the pain she had to endure throughout her life.

Friday night involved a lot of beverages and dancing. I’m focusing this post on the cultural expeditions of my weekend though, so you won’t be getting any of those stories.

The Erasmus Student Network, the organizations that sponsors and supports interaction between international exchange students, organized a hike in the northern hills of Vienna on Saturday. Thankfully it was at a late enough hour, 1:00, that I was able to get myself out of bed to partake in it. It was actually perfect timing because I had been really wanting to explore the outdoors in Vienna. The hike started in Heiligenstadt and brought us up to the summit of Leopoldsberg, at approximately 500m. It felt like we were hiking up a mountain at times, but I have been assured by Austrians that this was just a small hill. It was pretty rewarding though and I definitely want to climb more “hills,” maybe even mountains.

Saturday evening was dinner with the awesome Austrian students who will be coming to study in Chicago for two quarters starting in January. It’s been really great to meet them, as it is truly a give-and-take relationship in which they help us with our current life in Vienna and we provide them with insight into how life will be for them in Chicago. I only hope that we can be as great hosts to them in Chicago as they are here to us- the food we had on Saturday was served as “Bretteljausn,” which is hard to describe is essentially a traditional Austrian/any country in the Alps meal consisting of bread, a cream spread, vegetables, and cold cuts. Oh and wine of course. It was delicious, would eat it again.

Sunday was a day of shopping at a flea market in Simmering, across from the big and famous cemetery in Vienna (Zentralfriedhof- I hope to be able to write about that in the near future). Naturally, the evening was spent at an Irish pub, this time 1516, watching American football. 

Finally, today was a program excursion to St. Stephen’s Cathedral, located centrally in Stephansplatz. This church is one of the oldest in Europe and boasts the coffins of many of the Habsburgs, and for that matter some hundreds of common Austrians: the most interesting part was by far taking a peak into the many mass-graves located underneath the church where skeletons are piled on top of each other, or neatly stacked into unique arrangements. I don’t know what it is, but there is something awesome about seeing the remnants of people who lived 500 years ago. We will end up just like them some day, except they are famous because their skeletons are on display to countless tourists on a daily basis.

Anyway, on a less morbid note, here’s a look at the Baroque-ified but originally Gothic architecture/altar inside the church.

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Another day, another rally

So the demonstration I saw today was calmer than the one which probably was full of high people. Imagine that.

It was called Vollversammlung, which translates roughtly to “general assembly.” According to the website, this event occurred when professors, students, and other members of the University community convened to discuss important University issues. I don’t have many facts about the particular issue which brought together the assembly today, because unfortunately all the literature that I can find on it is in German, but I do know some basic things:

The federal government is proposing a new budget that cuts funding for Austrian’s public universities. The University of Vienna (Universität Wien, or UniWie) is “chronically underfunded,” according to a student body newsletter, and budget cuts would force overcrowding in classrooms and higher student-to-faculty ratios.

In Austria, a university education was completely free until in 2001 the government voted to subject coursework to fees, which were minimal compared to the exorbitant amounts we pay for private colleges in the U.S.; €366 per term for Austrian citizens, about €700 per term for non-Austrians, which is about $500 and $970 respectively. As of 2008, though, fees are waived for students who completed their studies in the minimum amount of time required (4-6 years) and are Austrian citizens. So logically there are consequences, good and bad, to providing free higher education for all citizens. The good: free higher education for all citizens. I think that speaks for itself and is incredibly valuable. The bad: overcrowding, tight budgets, etc. It’s not difficult to guess why the government feels it needs cut university funding. I’m not in favor of it- hey, I marched in the rally today. But I’m not sure what the solution is.

To me it’s always interesting to participate in events such as these while I’m abroad. It’s a unique experience in that it gets you thinking and involved in what every day Viennese students, my European peers, care about. I can go see St. Stephan’s Cathedral any day, but I can’t always be immersed in such spur of the moment energy and fervor that accompanies a demonstration. Of course as a student of public policy it also pertains to my interest in the action of government and the consequences of decisions that affect the public.

The balloons made a really awesome statement. They were pre-printed with “Mein Traum:” which means “My Dream:" Students used markers to share their wish, which ranged from “education for all,” to “99 Luftballoons.”

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Food for thought

I’ve never had to really engage in the process that is eating on your own- it is a process in that it involves deciding what you would like to eat, identifying the stuff you need to be able to eat what you like, going out and buying said stuff, and then cooking with a bunch of stuff to make your meal. To some people it’s just a natural part of life, but I’ve been on a meal plan for all of college and what is essentially a meal plan when I’m living at home (you’re the best, Mom).

That being said, I’m actually having a nice time learning how to provide for myself here. It’s refreshing and empowering to create the food that goes into your stomach. I may not diversity my meals as much as I could and I definitely don’t cook anything gourmet, but I have found enough room for creativity and improvisation that I’m having fun with it.

We are equipped with a decent kitchen here that came supplied with pots, pans, utensils, and of course one of the most important items- a bottle opener. It’s pretty necessary to have a glass of wine or beer while you’re waiting for your dinner to cook.

Last night a few girls in the program organized an Asian pot luck, and I decided to try to throw together an “Asian Salad”- as per the recipe that showed up as the first hit on Google. It featured crushed Ramen noodles, sesame seeds, almonds, and a dressing made of white balsamic vinegar, vegetable oil, and soy sauce. It’s probably not really all that Asian, but people seemed to really enjoy it. I personally found it delicious and hope to wow my family with it once I get back home.

One thing I noticed is that I don’t really do one big grocery shopping for the week. Instead I usually pop in to the supermarket a few days a week to replenish my supplies on an as-needed basis. Grocery shopping in foreign country, whose language is not English, is quite an experience. I once bought pork when I thought I was purchasing ground beef, and I cannot seem to find cheese that is not Gouda. I feel like I’m in pre-school again, depending on my ability to identify objects through pictures in place of being able to read. It’s all part of the adventure though.

"Asian Salad." Not to be confused with the "Asian Salad" served at McDonald’s from 2006-2008.

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A Seedy Parade

I’m quite used to dread-headed hippies and lovers of certain herbal products due to my enjoyment of certain musical artists whose fanbases fit those molds (see: Phish). However I was definitely not expecting to see this in the heart of Vienna, meters away from the Imperial Palace and St. Stephan’s Cathedral, points of traditionally historical and conservative interest.

By “this,” I mean a full-blown gathering and parade for the legalization of marijuana. My German is still pretty elementary, but it was clear what was going on here, from the blaring reggae music to the abundance of red-eyed 20-somethings milling about. Perhaps the most fun part of the experience was watching the innocent tourists’ reactions as the parade moved through the square, which ranged from knowing smirks to bewildered attempts to scurry small children along.

I’m a sucker for a bizarre juxtaposition. The sign roughly translates to, “No Wars Against Plants” and the Imperial Palace of the Habsburgs is seen in the background.

They moved pretty slowly.

And there was also a spontaneous dance party to some music coming out of the back of a truck.