What the Lion Said: Thoughts on Learning German As an Adult

The German word for “vocabulary” is Wortschatz. This is lovely — Wortschatz — it translates literally as “word treasure”. Sadly, my Wortschatz is a strangely formed thing. More a lump of lead (das Blei) than of gold (das Gold – cognate!). My limitations only became clear to me, though, when I finally took a German class last semester.

The other students in the class were all American undergraduates, students at a study abroad program for which I teach. The instructor kindly let me sit in on the class, and I participated just like my classmates, all of whom were at least 20 years my juniors. I did the homework, answered test questions, took part in discussions, wrote out in-class exercises, and made a bloody fool of myself.

You see, my classmates learned German differently than I did. That is to say, they learned it properly, with instruction, and correction. I learned German grammar nearly twenty years ago, when I first went to graduate school. All art historians have to learn German, though that usually means knowing just enough to pass a translation exam (with the benefit of a dictionary), and then barely using it again. In the manner of my kind, I  therefore spent the next decade-and-a-half forgetting what I’d learned. And then all of a sudden I married a German, moved to Austria, and tried to pick up the language again, without, until now, any instruction. This makes for a peculiar brew, a rickety heap of a half-learned language, thrown into sudden relief by comparison with my fresh young classmates.

For instance. They all know what is meant by the terms “strong verbs” and “weak verbs.” They know which prepositions take the accusative, and which ones the dative. They know which prefixes from the bewilderingly similar set of single-syllable options turn things on (is that auf and an?) and which ones turn things off (is that aus and ab?). And that’s leaving aside the fact that they know when to separate these prefixes from the verb (did you get that? Separate them from the verb!!) and when not. Throughout my semester-long debacle they were painfully kind and tolerant. They gave me a new and frankly confusing appreciation for the intelligence and diligence of the American college student.

Of course, their brains are two decades and a whole lot of bad choices younger than mine. So there’s that.

My word treasure is made up of altogether different stuff. Most of my recent German I learned from television Krimis and the free newspapers in the Ubahn. So when our class would discuss criminals, crimes, and the legal system I was ready to go! Rape? Murder? Defendant? Gang? I was loaded with that rich treasure, no problem. Or, how about things pertaining to family — all the relatives (mother-in-law, brother-in-law, stepmother), all the family events (wedding, baptism, communion) (and bear in mind, I’m Jewish!), plus an astonishing number of dog breeds. Often when I spoke I could see on one side of me my perplexed classmates, wondering what the hell I was talking about, and on the other my teacher, cracking up at my Tatort-shaped vocabulary.

Ludwig Wittgenstein (himself Austrian, born to one of the rich industrialist families that fostered the Wiener Werkstätte, the decorative arts arm of Jugendstil) famously said, “If a lion could talk, we would not understand him.” I know how that lion would feel, the meat-and-blood Wortschatz that ruled the Serengeti of no value in a world of light switches that go on and off (anschalten? auschalten?) and of books that lie on the table (auf dem tisch) or are laid on the table (auf den tisch).

 

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How to Understand Austria’s Win in Eurovision 2014

The Eurovision 2014 song contest wrapped up this weekend with Austrian drag performer Conchita Wurst the unlikely winner. It was pretty exciting. I confess to never having had any interest in Eurovision until this year, indeed not until last Wednesday, when I unexpectedly found myself watching the semifinal. From then on I couldn’t turn away. People say Eurovision is like American Idol for Europe, but it isn’t. It’s far deeper and more revealing.

The basics of Eurovision are that each country runs an individual contest to send one musical act to a continent-wide contest, where all the nations of Europe compete. “Europe” here is loosely construed. Israel, Armenia and Russia are all part of the action. The contest therefore should speak to broad regional unity: the continent that in the last 100 years was twice riven by wars big enough to merit the descriptor “world” now celebrates its cultural differences in an annual sing-off.

Each nation gives points to the acts its people and appointed judges like best, but they can’t vote for their own country’s act. And to judge by the voting, you’d have thought we were all watching different performances. What else could explain the fact that Poland got 62 points for its weirdly sexist contribution? (Seriously, watch this. If you lack patience, start at 2:10 and/or 2:50):

The butter churning is a little over the top, no? Apparently the full video for the song says that it is intended as satire, but it’s not clear any viewers got that.

Quality is not the major determining factor in Eurovision voting. And this year we pretty clearly were watching a fault line develop between western Europe and Russia. This is not surprising, given the situation in Ukraine. But what was interesting was Wurst’s role in this, because it seemed that she allowed that fault line to be, on the part of the western European nations, constructed around the broadly popular notion of tolerance. That Wurst should win Eurovision seemed to be giving the Russians the finger in a way that simply not voting for their bizarre identical blond twins never could. (Though that happened too.)

Example: The spokesperson for Netherlands, as he offered that nation’s 12 points for Austria and for Conchita Wurst, pointedly described the Dutch as having invented tolerance. (Though the Netherlands’ derivative country-western song, which came in second, was anything but inventive.) On the other side of the balance, Belarus gave its points to Russia, Armenia and Ukraine, a bit like an anxious younger sibling hoping to smooth over family conflicts past and present.

It’s typical for Eurovision to reveal regional and political fault-lines within Europe; the former Soviet client states vote together, the western democracies stick together as well. The only nation to be honest about this was Slovenia, whose spokesperson cheerfully offered her nation’s points up to “our neighbor” Austria. But Wurst seemed to represent something new — a rallying figure to express a vision of Europe sharply contrasting that of Russian intolerance, dissimulation, and violence.

Let’s not overstate this, though. Eurovision has the nations split their points among several countries; the spokesperson for each nation announces the 8, 10 and 12 point choices on the pan-European television broadcast. This split-point voting means countries didn’t have to throw away their entire voice on Wurst; it means that Italy, for example, could both express its desire for European tolerance (12 points to Wurst) and Ukrainian independence (10 points to Ukraine) while remaining the Italy we all know and love and wish would stop groping us (8 points to Poland for farmer’s daughter porn).

All of western Europe celebrated Austria on Saturday night — little Austria, bastion of democratic tolerance. Spokespersons announcing votes for Conchita Wurst seemed to feel they were participating in something important, historic. All the more reason, therefore, to be pissed off at Germany.

Germany gave 8 points to Denmark for an adorable boy band that was my second choice. 10 German points went to Poland (my theory is that the Polish outfits looked a bit like dirndls, triggering some deep resonance in the collective German unconscious). And 12 went to the Netherlands for that horrible country song. Fair enough, we all know there’s no accounting for taste, let alone German taste. But in Austria the German vote tapped into a deep well of resentment. And it makes it far worse that the Germans are likely unaware of this.

You are, too. But you wouldn’t be if you lived here. If you lived here, you would be schooled in the ways that Austrian pride is deeply intertwined with Germany’s disdain. Here, look at this:

Cordobart = Cordoba + Bart
Cordobart = Cordoba + Bart

That is an article on the website of the Kurier, an Austrian newspaper. “Cordobart” is an ingenious mashup of Conchita’s beard (bart in German) with Cordoba. Never heard of Cordoba? Neither had I til I came here. Cordoba is the Miracle of Cordoba — the one occasion, in 1978, when Austria beat Germany in the World Cup. It was the first time in 47 years the Austrian national soccer team had beaten the Germans; it was to be the last, at least thus far. That every single person in Austria knows of it, and likely feels passionately about it, tells you a lot about the relationship between these neighboring lands. Germans are the largest population of immigrants in this country. They come here for holidays, for university, and for employment. But they pretty consistently forget the place exists.

When Germany gave Conchita Wurst no votes on Saturday, they seemed to signal they were above both the larger politics of the contest and the kind of mutual regard that generally leads neighboring states to vote for each other. Moreover, they signaled to Austria, once again, that they considered their littler neighbor with whom they share a common language to be beneath their notice. (Switzerland got no substantial German points either).

This is particularly insulting because Conchita Wurst is intensely Austrian. In her full garb she makes an exotic impression, looking perhaps Armenian or Azarbaijani. But Conchita Wurst is the stage name of Tom Neuwirth, a name as Austrian as a Schnitzel, who grew up in a tiny town near Gmunden, Austria. In a profile show leading up to Saturday’s finale, the ORF followed Conchita home to visit her family and film a joyful reunion with her parents, both of whom were dressed from head to toe in Tracht (dirndl for mom, lederhosen for dad). The Neuwirth parents run a Gasthaus, and hosted the entire town, most of whom were also dressed in Tracht, for a party to celebrate Tom/Conchita’s success. Everyone was delighted. The sight of Conchita’s father, in lederhosen, beaming with pride and standing with an arm wrapped unabashedly around his son (dressed in a pencil skirt and midriff-baring top), was unbelievably cute.

Austria has come a long way. Against such an auspicious backdrop, it hardly matters whether one even likes the song:

 

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Sunday Fun: Harness Racing At Krieau

A couple of weeks ago, on Easter Sunday, we headed off to the races. In a part of the Prater called Krieau (Kree-ow) one finds a harness racing track. No galloping, these horses trot along at extreme speeds pulling a little cart, called a sulky. Instead of a jockey, they have a driver.

Krieau harness racing Vienna
I pick my horse the scientific way — by watching them warm up and deciding which one is the cutest. This cutie pie probably galloped.

As at a standard racetrack there is a grandstand, wagering, and plentiful beer. Unlike at a standard racetrack, a horse is eliminated if he or she gallops. (The horses I bet on pretty much invariably galloped.)

Krieau Trabrennbahn Vienna
I love the little Modernist viewing gallery and communications tower behind the finish line, paired with the video screen.

There is actually a non-operational galloping track a little farther down in the Prater — it’s absolutely beautiful, an elegant, spindly Jugendstil structure that’s now used only for the occasional event; we were most recently there for a bicycle festival. The track itself is having a second life as a golf course. Though there’s no more racing there, the structure is under Denkmalschutz (historic preservation), so for the moment they’ve not knocked it down.

Krieau Trabrennbahn Vienna
Grandstand at the Trabrennbahn, decorated with jockey’s colors, Habsburg arms, and old men.

The nearby Trabrennbahn, or trotting track, was finished in 1913 in a Vienna Modernist style. It’s the second-oldest harness track in Europe. One does worry for its future, though. It’s poorly populated and looks run down. An entire section of the grandstand is not in use, basically in a shambles. Theoretically the horses are going to get new stabling (they’re now in older facilities beyond the track). But it’s a little hard to believe they won’t eventually tear the whole thing down and replace it with some awful contemporary structure that more immediately advances the cause of international capital.

Krieau Trabrennbahn Vienna
Beyond the stands in use you can see the deteriorating portion of the grandstand.

The Krieau track sits cheek-by-jowl with the brand new, hideous, overweeningly self-important WU (Wirtschaftsuniversität, or Economics University), built on the edge of the Prater just in the last couple of years. It is seriously the ugliest thing ever, a mishmash of mishapen buildings by important architects, thrown up in haste. In this photo you can see the WU behind the track as well as the Messe Wien — the convention center that already put pressure on this area:

Krieau Trabrennbahn Wien
Pastoral, no? Horses in the shadow of the Economics Uni and convention center.

The area around the Prater is changing rapidly. New campus housing for the WU has already been built; more is being constructed. The old, pastoral, rambling days of the park are on borrowed time — and land. So are the trotters, and the timeless atmosphere that surrounds them. The race meet ends on June 1st. Still opportunity for a pleasant Sunday afternoon at the track.

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The Great Mozart Ball Taste Test

Anyone who has been to Vienna has been confronted with the ubiquitous Mozart Balls. Sold in souvenir shops, the grocery store, and even museum gift shops, Mozartkugeln, as they are known in German, are round(ish) lumps of marzipan with a chocolate coating, wrapped in gold foil with an image of Mozart. At first glance it would seem that there is simply the single, universal Mozart Ball, but ’tis not so. In fact there are as many variations on these Kugeln (Kugel just means ball or sphere) as there are chocolatiers in Austria. So we decided to settle for once and for all: which is the best of the Mozart Balls?

Four little Mozarts, all in a row: Mirabell, Heindl, Reber, Hofbauer.
Four little Mozarts, all in a row: Mirabell, Heindl, Reber, Hofbauer.

I set out to assemble as complete a collection of Mozart Balls as possible. After trips through several waltz-playing souvenir shops and one Billa I wound up with products from four chocolatiers, displayed here from left to right: Mirabell, Heindl, Reber, and Hofbauer.

You, being an astute observer, will have already noticed that only one of these is, in fact, a ball. That’s the Mirabell, on the left. The others are really more Mozart Lumps. But that’s an even more problematic concept than Mozart Balls, so let’s just stick with the standard terminology, shall we?

And anyway, these things come in all kinds of shapes. As a bonus, I picked up a Mozarttaler (“Taler” is an old-timey word for a coin), and its counterpart, the Sissitaler, named for the Empress Elisabeth, who is an inexplicable obsession around here.

A Tale of Two Talers: Sissi and Mozart are BFFs
A Tale of Two Talers: Sissi and Mozart are BFFs

In the interests of scientific accuracy and also hilarity, I asked for a second opinion in this taste test. Please enter my spouse, respondent S below, who does not ordinarily eat sweets and specifically hates marzipan. Watching her choke this stuff down at 7:30 am was marital good times! So, shall we begin?

Here are the contenders, in the same order as above, cut in half so you can see their guts:

Denuded and deconstructed, a view inside the Mozart ball.
Denuded and deconstructed, a view inside the Mozart ball. They are, again, Mirabell, Heindl, Reber, Hofbauer, and we will taste them in that order.

Mozart Ball #1 (Mirabell):

Me: There is a strong flavor of marzipan and the marzipan itself is very smooth, which I like, but the chocolate on the outside is weird — it’s kind of gummy and has a funny flavor. I think they added something to it to make it wrap around the marzipan, and whatever that something is, it is not so pleasant.

S: Gar nicht so schlecht. Schmeckt sehr nougatmässig. Translation: Actually not so bad. Tastes kind of nougaty.

Mozart Ball #2 (Heindl):

Me: Mixes marzipan with a kind of semi-sweet chocolate cake that a bit overpowers it. Chocolate shell is sweeter than the Mirabell one, but has a better consistency. For me it’s too chocolatey.

S: Marzipan ist sehr grob, und schmeckt wie Marzipan, was ich nicht mag. Schokolade ist irgendwie nicht so überzeugend. Translation: The marzipan is coarse and tastes like marzipan, which I don’t like. The chocolate is not very impressive.

Mozart Ball # 3 (Reber):

Me: Has a chocolate gouache ball in the center and a powerful flavor of liqueur. Really very marzipany. Also very boozy. The center totally overpowers the chocolate coating. It seems hitting a good filling/coating balance is the key to the Mozart Ball. That said, I like marzipan, so it’s ok.

S: Ich finde die verschiedenen Geschmacksrichtungen überlagern sich, und die Konsistenz ist auch nicht so überzeugend. Wenn man jede Schicht allein schmeckt ist es nicht so schlimm. Translation: I find the various flavor elements interfere with each other, and the consistency is not so great. If one tastes each layer alone it’s not so bad. Also I am beginning to feel sick, and think I may vomit. (That last bit was said off the record, but whatever.)

Mozart Ball #4 (Hofbauer):

Me: Veeeeery sweet. Just so one note, the marzipan has very little almond flavor, but the chocolate stuff in the center doesn’t have a lot of taste either. It’s like a sugar ball.

S: Schmeckt nicht gut. Translation: Yuck.

 BONUS: The Taler Tasting

They are stamped like communion wafers with the image of the flesh.
They are stamped like communion wafers with the image of the flesh. Sissi left, Mozart right.

Taler #1: Mozarttaler

Me: I love it! Sweet, creamy milk chocolate with just the right amount of marzipan — soft and sweet — it’s like a Viennese Milky Way!

S: Very smooth. Dissolves on your tongue. Doesn’t taste like much. (She forgot to speak German. She always forgets to speak German. This is why my German sucks.)

Dear God, what is oozing out of that thing on the left??
Dear God, what is oozing out of that thing on the left?? Sissi Sauce???

Taler #2: Sissitaler

Me: YUCK!! Who put jam inside this thing? It’s oozing with apricot jam! I hate apricots. And I really hate surprise jam! There should never, ever be surprise jam in one’s food.

S, having been asked once again to speak German: Hat es Alkohol darinnen? Schmeckt wie Alkohol. Dass mit den Marillen — ekelhaft. Translation: Is there alcohol in this? It tastes like alcohol. And that thing with the apricots — disgusting.

Final Rankings:

Me: Mozarttaler for the win. Then Reber, Heindl, Mirabell, Hofbauer, in that order.

S: Mirabell, Heindl, Reber, Hofbauer. No taler, please.

There you have it — a user’s guide to Mozart Balls. Shop with care, friends.

Posted in Culture, Food, Regan Writing | 10 Comments

5 Reasons to Love Tatort, And My 3 Top Teams

My dad likes to Skype on Sunday. He’s in New York, six hours behind me, so this often puts our call into the early evening. This week I replied to his email of the subject line “Wanna Skype?” with a brief reply: “Anytime before 8:15pm my time.” So there we were, on Skype on Sunday evening when I said, “Ok, Dad. It’s 8:10. We are in the last five minutes of this conversation. ‘Cause Tatort starts in five. And now you’re going to ask me, ‘What is Tatort?'”

“What is Tatort?” my dad obligingly asked. So where shall I begin?

Tatort_Logo.svg

I told my dad that Tatort is like the German version of Law and Order, only better. But I said that because by now it was 8:11 and things were getting tense. The first rule of Tatort is that if you miss the beginning you will never, ever get caught up. But the fact is that Tatort is not like Law and Order, except in the sense that it is a Krimi, and that it often has rather famous actors. It is unlike Law and Order in all of the following ways, which essentially constitute its peculiar appeal:

1. Tatort is only on on Sunday night. Nothing else of any importance is on on Sunday night. It is on everywhere in Germany and Austria, on Sunday night, at 8:15pm, without fail. It is never pre-empted. It is never not there. It is an institution. It even still uses its opening music and graphic from the 1970s (and you can really tell).

2. Tatort does not have commercials and is an hour and a half long, making it more of a movie than a TV show. The crimes are complex, as are the characters, and the longer timeframe means that the narrative twists several times in the course of an episode. It is truly unpredictable, every week something entirely new.

3. Each week’s Tatort is set in a different city, with a different pair of Ermittler (investigators). There are around a dozen different teams, and they come from places ranging from Berlin to Dortmund to Frankfurt to (proud to say) Vienna. Each team has its own peculiar dynamic and range; some are male-female teams, some old-young teams, some male-male teams. The investigation unfolds according in part to the character of the team — but since you don’t see them every week, or even every month, you don’t get sick of them. And when your favorite team shows up in the previews for the next week, you jump up and down a little. If you’re that sort.

4. Importantly, because Tatort is not dubbed from English (unlike the ubiquitous episodes of CSI and Criminal Minds and Law and Order and The Mentalist and Life and….you get the idea), it is extraordinarily difficult for a person learning German to understand . The pace is different, the phrasing, the rhythm of the conversations — I can’t explain it, but Tatort is just much harder to follow than a dubbed American show. It is therefore my personal goal to get to the point where I can watch an entire Tatort through from beginning to end without needing help. Currently, watching it is more like wrestling a snake than watching TV. After every exchange I have to hurriedly demand that my spouse tell me what the hell they just said even as more talking is going on — because there are no commercials, and so no chance to catch up. It leaves me utterly exhausted. But it’s that good.

5. In Catholic Austria, where everything is closed on Sunday, Tatort is folded into the pace of life. There’s no shopping to be done, no hurrying around, nowhere to be. Sunday is a slow day. You go for a walk. You tidy up the house. You cook dinner early, and settle down to watch Tatort at 8:15. It’s like the America of my childhood. But in German. And with better dinner.

Next week’s Tatort will feature Til Schweiger, who is like the German version of Tom Cruise in that he’s very famous and very, very short, but not like Tom Cruise in that he’s a good actor and not insane. Christoph Waltz was even supposed to be a Tatort Kommissar at one time (he did one episode). (He also did an episode of Kommissar Rex, by the way.) But these all pale in comparison to what I consider to be, listed here in hierarchical order, the very best Tatort investigative teams:

#1 Team Vienna (Eisner and Fellner): This team combines a hilarious middle-aged female investigator with a grumpy old male one; they crack a lot of jokes and have a companionable relationship. He, Moritz Eisner, is totally deadpan. His partner, Bibi Fellner, has this long, incredibly expressive face. They’re adorable, and they go all over Austria, meaning they offer plenty of opportunity to hear dialects from Viennese to Tyrolean.

Adele Neuhauser, who plays Bibi Fellner zu Gast bei der Verleihung des Nestroy-Theaterpreises 2010 im Burgtheater in Wien on 8 November 2010, as photographed by Manfred Werner - Tsui under a Creative Commons License)
Adele Neuhauser, who plays Bibi Fellner (photo credit: Manfred Werner – Tsui, under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License)

#2 Team Ludwigshafen (Odenthal and Kopper): To be honest, were it not for patriotism, I would make this my #1 team, entirely because of Ulrike Folkerts who plays Lena Odenthal. She’s fabulous. She’s gorgeous, gay in real life, and a terrific actress, with a loose-limbed physicality that’s very appealing. I like her German, too. Her partner, Kopper, speaks Italian, which is a bonus, and is a sort of greasy, hardened cop. They also have a great relationship — like Team Vienna, they’re both single, and buddies who occasionally crash at each other’s places. They’re adorable. Though none of this helps me understand where the hell Ludwigshafen might be, nor why they have so much crime there.

Ulrike Folkerts at the SWR Sommerfestival 2013 in Mainz, photo by René Kirchhoff under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ulrike_Folkerts_beim_SWR_Sommerfestival_2013_in_Mainz_zur_Tatortpremiere.jpg
Ulrike Folkerts at the SWR Sommerfestival 2013 in Mainz, photo by René Kirchhoff under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License

#3 Team Berlin (Ritter and Stark): Technically, it’s not a list until there are at least three things on it. So I’ll pick a third here — Ritter and Stark — entirely because it is so entertaining that they are men of similar age but around three feet apart in height. Stark is tiny, and Ritter is a lanky, slightly older guy who spends the entire episode looming above his partner. As far as I can tell this inherently comical element is never mentioned, which is refreshing. You would literally never see casting like this played this way on American television. Ever.

You there in America. Yes, you. You too can watch Tatort, on YouTube! But, um, it’s not dubbed into English. Best of luck with the German. It kicks my ass every week.

 

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The Comforts of Home

Hello there. I’m back in Vienna. It was nice to be in California, but you know how the US is. A frantic dash from one thing you’re late for to the next, always hustling and hurrying and striving. It’s good to be back here.

I had lots of ideas for how I could describe some differences between Vienna and the US, specifically northern California. There are so many funny things that are peculiar to Vienna, that I had really missed while in the US. Concrete example: when you go into a shop here, you will always be greeted by everyone who works there, and it’s expected that you’ll greet them back. Fair enough. But then when you leave, there are typically TWO goodbyes. First they’ll say something like, “Danke! Wiedersehen!” and you’ll say, “Wiedersehen!” and then they’ll double down on that and say to your retreating back, “Wiederschauen!” which means exactly the same thing — and you’ll say over your shoulder, “Wiederschauen!” And this will seem normal to you after a time.

By the very same token, however, you can expect, should you go to a café, to have your coffee basically thrown at you by a waiter, often in evening dress, who shows up 10 seconds after you sit down to demand to know what you want and, should you not be ready to order, will under no circumstances return until you go looking for him. Granted, the coffee will always — and I mean always — appear on a little silver tray with a little glass of water accompanying it and often a cookie or a chocolate. But it will be delivered with a rudeness so complete that you will have to almost admire it.

To be clear, the inclusion of this cup of coffee is in no way intended as a comment on the waitstaff at this particular café, whom I've always found to be very nice.
To be clear, the inclusion of this cup of coffee is in no way intended as a comment on the waitstaff at this particular café, whom I’ve always found to be very nice.

Yesterday evening, I went jogging in the Prater, up the Hauptallee in the direction of the Praterstern (so, from middle of the park heading toward town). Usually I find this a simultaneously pastoral and social endeavor — horses, bikes, joggers, dogs, walkers, strollers, anybody and everybody uses the Hauptallee in the evening. Here’s what that looks like in summer:

All these elements - cyclists, horses, joggers - were there in the dark. But, you know, invisible.
Many elements – cyclists, horses, joggers – are staples of the Hauptallee.

In winter, it can be a more austere setting:

This is how the Prater looked when I went jogging on one of the coldest late afternoons of last winter. Lonely. Cold. But, you know, lit.
This is how the Prater looked when I went jogging on one of the coldest late afternoons of last winter. Lonely. Frigid. But, you know, lit.

But the other night — around 6:30pm — it looked like this:

Hey, guys? Um, guys? Can someone get the lights??
Hey, guys? Um, guys? Can someone get the lights??

Yeah. Like that. The lights were out down the entire final stretch of the Hauptallee. That little light in the center? That’s the Praterstern. I didn’t think it was so dark until I was in the middle of it….and then when I almost ran into a slower-moving person in front of me who I literally did not see until I was right on top of her, I realized I was one of a smattering of joggers, walkers, cyclists, blindly stumbling through the pitch dark. In a public park. In a major city. At night. I turned and looked back in the direction I’d come:

So hard to resist the urge to run like hell toward the light.
So hard to resist the urge to run like hell toward the light.

I thought, huh. And then I kept on going — straight ahead into the dark of that first photo. Because this is Vienna. And while I’m not going to say nothing could ever happen to you here, it’s a pretty damn safe place. Central Park. Golden Gate Park. Lincoln Park. Rock Creek Park. Where in the US would you have felt safe making the same choice?

Let’s end this new year inaugural post with a bit of a poem about words and coming home:

To know a road you own it, every bend and pebble and the weeds along it, dust that itches when the August hayrake rambles home. You own the home. You own the death of every bird you name. To live good, keep your life and the scene. Cow, brook, hay: these are names of coins. --- Richard Hugo, "Montgomery Hollow"
To know a road you own it, every bend
and pebble and the weeds along it,
dust that itches when the August hayrake
rambles home. You own the home.
You own the death of every bird you name.
To live good, keep your life and the scene.
Cow, brook, hay: these are names of coins.
— Richard Hugo, “Montgomery Hollow”
Posted in Around Austria, Regan Writing | 1 Comment

Shoe Blogging Resumes

So I’ve been sitting here quietly photographing my shoes, but I didn’t want to post about it because of the whole debt ceiling/gov’t shutdown debacle that was unfolding here. First of all, the whole business was too infuriating and embarrassing to describe. Second of all, had we breached the debt ceiling, I didn’t want to be posting frivolous shoe pics while my 401K burned (kidding, I don’t have a 401K). And also, I was really busy posting angry notes on John Boehner and Eric Cantor and Paul Ryan’s Facebook pages (not kidding).

In the interim, some shoes happened, though, and some of them even relate to travel. Shall we?

Got 'em in Berlin, wearin' 'em in Berkeley.
Got ‘em in Berlin, wearin’ ‘em in Berkeley.

These cuties were purchased in Berlin, as a last-minute buy on the way to the train. I seem to be a sucker for wood-heeled green shoes. Huh. I never really noticed that before. You know, they tell you a blog is a journey of self-discovery, but I’m just now realizing how true it really is.

For those who cannot pick a color.
For those who cannot pick a color.

These are red-grey-beige colorblock mules, purchased in Vienna at Salamander. Now, ordinarily I am very strongly opposed to shopping at Salamander. Very. Their prices are a Frechheit, an impertinence. You can often find literally the very same shoes down the street for like 20 euros less. But. These were on mega-sale, and I have an on-again-off-again romance with colorblocking. They look particularly charming against the institutional carpet of my classroom (no students were present when I took this picture).

Is that Houndstooth? What exactly is Houndstooth, anyway?
I don’t know the name for that pattern. Is that Houndstooth? What exactly is Houndstooth, anyway?

I’m not gonna lie, these shoes hurt. They hurt like you wouldn’t believe, especially after 3 hours of lecturing in them. They make the plantar fasciitis in my right foot burn with the fire of a thousand suns. But so what? They’re so cute. They’re actually fabric on the top, like a knit kind of stuff, giving them a friendly look. Which they need, because you could take out someone’s eye with that heel.

One more? These are a classic:

black

 

I got these in Trieste, Italy. They were over my budget. Well, one of my budgets. I have a mental price limit on Utterly Ridiculous Shoes — and it’s a lower amount than my limit for Elegant Classics I Could Walk A Block In. (No, I don’t want to specify the relevant amounts.) These were over my Utterly Ridiculous limit by like 15 euros. My traveling companions pitched in the extra for the pleasure of seeing me buy, and then wear, these shoes. I did and still do consider that to be a highly friendly gesture.

A word on Trieste, since I’m on the subject. The place is a revelation. It’s off the beaten path, so far around the Adriatic that it’s practically opposite Venice, which is itself already the established limit of the traditional tourist loop of Italy. But Trieste is, in my opinion, far more pleasant than Venice. Certainly it offers better vistas. The city center comes straight down to the Adriatic, embracing the water:

Trieste

Ignore the ugly scaffold. Trieste is characterized by its fantastic and fantastical Baroque architecture from the time when it was the primary sea port of the Austro-Hungarian empire. And at night, that architecture is spectacularly lit:

Trieste by Night

I recommend a trip to Trieste if you ever have the opportunity. And next time we speak, I rather think I’ll talk boots. I also plan to bitch at length about United Airlines. So much to look forward to!

 

Posted in Around Austria, Regan Writing, Shoes | 3 Comments

What’s New? Shoes!

“Where have you been,” you ask? Good question.

I came back to the US a few weeks ago. Now, don’t worry. This is a temporary state of affairs — in the same way that a trip to the dentist is temporary. That is, it comes around regularly and is somewhat painful. Every fall I come back to the US to teach a couple or three classes, and then around Christmas I’ll head back to Vienna.

Will blogging cease? I certainly hope not. But I’ve been uncertain about the terms on which to continue. Clearly, going on and on about sights and events in Vienna when I’m not there would be…weird. And while I really do want to write a post on the subject of American versus European drivers (good GOD, California, would it kill you to stay in your lane???), I don’t feel like I want to spend the next several months writing a blog about life in the US.

So I thought I’d turn to my other sometime focus: shoes. A couple of years ago I did a thing on Facebook where I decided to teach an entire semester without ever wearing the same pair of shoes to class twice. I wound up posting many of the shoes I did wear as status updates. I’m not going to promise never to repeat a pair, because I have some favorites here that I never get to see when I’m in Vienna, and I plan to work them hard. But. It did occur to me that I could post a weekly shoe update here, on my friendly blog. For example, for the first day of school, I wore these:

Peep-toes from Udine. Loving the neutrals for late summer.
Peep-toes from Udine. Loving the neutrals for late summer.

I wanted to start out neutral, but assert a certain presence. I also got those shoes this summer on vacation in Udine, a city I very much liked. Somewhere along the line I developed a rule that wherever I travel I get to buy a pair of “souvenir shoes.” I’m not sure this was a good tradition to institute, but there you go. That’s how it is. So I will share with you, not only the shoes, but the memories and travels that go with them.

For example, those shoes, neutral though they are, call to my mind the church of Santa Maria di Castello in Udine, where a side apse is frescoed with a fantastically emotive 13th-century (probably) Byzantine fresco of the Deposition:

Udine's oldest church, probably 12th century with much earlier (7th century?) origins.
Udine’s oldest church, probably 12th century with much earlier (7th century?) origins.
Byzantine 13th-century frescoes in Santa Maria di Castello in Udine show a frenzy of emotion around the removal of Christ from the cross.
Byzantine 13th-century frescoes in Santa Maria di Castello in Udine show a frenzy of emotion around the removal of Christ from the cross.

Speaking of shoes with memories, last week I also wore these:

These make a very loud noise when I walk. I like that, but most people don't.
The heels on these shoes are wood. They make a very loud noise when I walk. I like that, but most people don’t.

Those shoes were acquired in the US, so not souvenir shoes, but they are what I like to think of as “lucky accidents.” I ordered them to wear to my best friend’s wedding (where my eventual spouse and I hooked up — talk about luck!). But they didn’t arrive in time, so I had to order another pair of shoes as well. Bonus!

Finally, last Wednesday I wore these. I love these. I got them in Vienna at this store in the first district that sells a highly random collection of Italian and Italian-styled stuff, some of it super-cool, some of it pretty strange, with a staff of very friendly young women who all seem to be Czech or Hungarian or something. These were on mega-sale (something of a theme among my shoes):

Peach and black snakeskin. Because snakes totally come in these colors.
Peach and black snakeskin. Because snakes totally come in these colors.

No promises, people! I still want to bitch about how people drive in California (like, it’s a STOP sign, not a SIT AND STARE sign!). I still want to marvel at how much I have to exercise and how little I can eat here. But in the meantime, I’ll show you some shoes, and hope this keeps you on board until I get back to Vienna in December.

And I’m gonna need to get better at the shoe selfies. I’ll work on it.

Posted in Regan Writing, Shoes | 1 Comment

How to Win at the Grocery Store Wars

While I’m on the subject of stores, I want to talk a little about the grocery store. I had in mind that this would be a post on cultural differences that drive me nuts (what is up with the butting in line, Europe?? Seriously, knock it off), but this one actually merits a post all its own. Because if you plan to go to the grocery store here, you need to be prepared. And by “prepared” I mean, you should probably start working out. Like, now.

Viennese grocery stores (and elsewhere—the same is true in Italy) have a different procedure than is followed in the US. First of all, if you want bags you will need to buy them. They’re usually hanging in front of and under the counter. You will be paying around 30 cents for each one, so you won’t want too many. Ideally, you will bring your own shopping bag(s) with you. This is ecologically motivated, and it makes good sense. The problem is that it interacts with another feature of the European grocery, with devastating results.

This is a bag from a shoe store that in our house doubles as a grocery bag. Here you see it in its fully-packed state. It weighs probably 20 pounds and is on the verge of breaking.
This is a bag from a shoe store that in our house doubles as a grocery bag. Here you see it in its fully-packed state. It weighs probably 20 pounds and is on the verge of breaking.

That other feature is that there are no baggers. In the US, of course, your groceries are tidily packed in a bag, while you wait, by a person experienced in such things. In an earlier generation this was often a teenager. These days, with employment in the US being what it is, it could easily be the head of a family of 4. In Vienna, though, it’ll be nobody. Your groceries are going to come flying down the belt toward you with no one to help you stuff them in bags. Here’s where I return to the first issue I mentioned: this issue will be exacerbated by the fact that you tried to save money by getting too few bags, and by the fact that you have no idea what you’re doing. Your bi-weekly trip to the grocery store in no way replaces the years of experience of a professional bagger. You are going to crush the strawberries. You are going to squeeze the cheese.

Melee at the Checkout Stand
Here we see a poor soul in the throes of it at the Billa. You can almost feel the flop-sweat.

Worse yet, you are going to do it with the next person in line standing right on top of you, and the checker watching you scramble around because you can’t bag and get out your money at the same time. Bad times. Here are three basic strategies for surviving:

1. Bags first. Most people lay their groceries on the belt, and only then realize they’ll need a bag and grab one from the rack. By “most people” I of course mean me. Don’t be that fool. Get your bag on the belt first, so that you have it rung up first and can immediately start stuffing it with purchases. Game on!

2. Hold your ground. Look again at the above photo. I see something here that you may not: this woman is making sure the person after her doesn’t crowd her by putting her cart behind her in line—otherwise an inexplicable choice. A major factor in grocery store success is controlling your own sense of pressure. You can’t let the person behind you stand on top of you. Do what it takes—put your elbows, your cart, hell, even your body odor in their way.

3. Take it in phases. The grocery store is not evil, merely misguided. They know that no one can manage in this kind of pressure cooker, and so they always, always provide a shelf or counter just across from the checkout stands where you can dump your stuff and regroup. Do that. Consider your pass through the line merely the first stage of your checkout journey, and take a moment here to repack your bags, salvaging anything that was maltreated in your first, frenzied effort. Your strawberries, your cheese and your sanity all thank you.

Posted in Culture, Regan Writing | Tagged , | 2 Comments

The Corner Store

Around the corner from our house, in the Lasallestrasse near the Vorgartenstrasse U-Bahn station, one finds a little shop that is so very Vienna. What kind of shop? An umbrella shop, that’s what. A sign over the door says, “Umbrellas.”

Umbrellas Sold Here

What’s so special about an umbrella shop? Squint your eyes and examine the objects in the window. You will see that this little store doesn’t just sell umbrellas—indeed no. It also sells toys:

Umbrellas And MORE!This is one of those esoteric little Viennese stores that have been around forever, and where the owner offers a selection of whatever the hell he wants for the occasional neighborhood client who stops in. In this case, the owner, who is very happy to chat, told us that he’s been selling umbrellas in this shop for over 50 years. (This was surely the family business.) He makes and repairs umbrellas of all colors and styles.

I have to say that the idea of repairing an umbrella — rather than throwing it away and getting a new one —had literally never occurred to me.
I have to say that the idea of repairing an umbrella — rather than throwing it away and getting a new one —had literally never occurred to me.

Once upon a time, he probably did a lively business. Vienna, with its wild weather, is deadly for umbrellas; the wind just flips them inside-out without warning. A previous generation was likely investing often in umbrella repair. I am guessing that with the advent of cheap umbrellas from China he turned to selling toys on the side. Of course, it is also possible that he just sells toys because he likes them. One supposes this because he is also selling honey.

Yes. He sells umbrellas. Toys. And honey.

The honey he produces himself, as he is also a beekeeper with some fields along the Danube somewhere. He has wildflower and sunflower and lavender honey.

This honey is home-grown and delicious. Austria has incredible honey.
This honey is home-grown and delicious. Austria has incredible honey. Honey is also basically the only homeopathic curative to which I give serious credence.

I love honey. I collect honey, jar upon jar, every possible flavor. Austria is honey heaven. I don’t know why, but there is just a lot of beekeeping going on in this country—you can get amazing honey in all the local markets. But honey and umbrellas and toys? That is unusual.

I love these crazy little Viennese stores that sell whatever they please with no regard for whether there’s a customer base. No market testing, no social media marketing, no special offers or landing pages or cross promotions or any of that shit. Just toys, handmade umbrellas, and homemade honey.

Needless to say, the owner of this charming but impractical business is going into Pension (retirement) in January. God knows what horror will take his place (cell phone shop?). Head to Lasallestrasse to get your umbrella fixed and your honey stockpiled while you still can.

Posted in Culture, Food | Tagged | 1 Comment