Monthly Archives: March 2013

Eggs: The First Flower of Spring

If Easter is not your thing—you don’t love a window display full of bunnies, you don’t want decorated eggs all over your house, you don’t enjoy a delicious chocolate rabbit—then Vienna may not be your place, since for the last several weeks pretty much every shop window has had a certain look:

So. Much. Chocolate.
So. Much. Chocolate.

But you don’t have to be an Easter person to love Vienna’s Easter markets, full as they are of delicious treats (all manner of breads, sweets, and hot, alcohol-laden beverages) and bright colors. Here, for instance, is a rather standard example, the market at Am Hof in the first district:

Fewer eggs, more Punsch.
Fewer eggs, more Punsch.

The jolliest of these markets, though, are the ones with Easter egg displays, like the one at Freyung (also my favorite Christmas market) in the first:

Every egg in Vienna seems to wind up here.
Every egg in Vienna seems to wind up here.

The major feature here is a decorated egg display of epic proportions. All of the eggs are emptied of their contents, decorated with an often extraordinary degree of detail and variety of materials, and for sale. I never buy any of the eggs, but I do love to go look. It’s hard to exaggerate just what a grey winter it’s been around here, and the Easter markets, with their colorful eggs, are the first sign that color might ever return to the world:

Eggity Eggs Eggs Eggs
Eggity Eggs Eggs Eggs
Rough color-coordination helps manage the eggy chaos.
Rough color-coordination helps manage the eggy chaos.

I have been told that the best eggs are not found at the Easter markets, but are sold at the Tschechisches Zentrum (the Czech Center) in the Herrengasse. I heard this too late to confirm it, however, so I’ll have to update on that next year. I’ve seen the eggs, though, and they’re gorgeous (wax-covered and painted). Even so, the Freyung is nothing to sneeze at. Who has a heart so hard that it would not be moved by endless variations on a pink egg:

Welcome to the pink section.
Welcome to the pink section.

Please note: there are no such signs of color—nor yet life—in the natural landscape, where it’s actually snowing right now.



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Ode to Spring

The Prater is Vienna’s version of Central Park—a massive, path-laced green zone that lies, depending on your perspective, either frustratingly outside the tourist part of town (i.e., the first district) or conveniently near the city center, in the highly-accessible second district (where I live, FYI). (The second district is the best of all the districts, but we can talk about that some other time.) Put another way, the Prater is located between the canal (previously an arm of the Danube) and the Danube itself (which actually is a redirected/reshaped arm of the river) (and yes, we can talk about that some other time, too)…..

Well. I seem not to be making much progress here. So, in short, the Prater is a giant park, with a straight pedestrian road—the Hauptallee—up its center, where carriages and joggers and cyclists and flaneurs and all manner of folk go up and down. There are restaurants and a giant ferris wheel (the Riesenrad) and a miniature train and an amusement park. Some amount of this last consists of relics from the 1873 World’s Fair (more about that some other time too—coinciding with a stock market crash and a cholera epidemic, it was a colossal failure). A lot of it is recent additions and new constructions. It changes often, and also remains very much the same. In the summer it’s a key attraction, and when warm weather (finally, finally!) comes, I’ll be going there in the evenings fairly often (miniature golf! beer garden!) and will write about it again.

But in the meantime, I wanted to share some pictures of how the amusement park looked a few weeks ago, under heavy snow. Part of the motivation here is that the (please, God) last snow of the year fell over the last three days and is just now starting to melt. Let me use these pictures as a farewell to Vienna’s atmospheric, austere, beautiful winter, and a greeting to spring.

Spring! Where the hell are you??

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Call Me, Maybe?

Over the last few weeks, I ‘ve seen a number of people in Vienna using cell phones in what strike me as very funny conditions. Everyone loves their cell phone (“Handy” auf Deutsch), but here they are a way of life—I get the (unsubstantiated) impression that there are fewer smart phones but a whole lot of actual talking and old-school, press-the-buttons texting going on.

Anyway, a few weeks ago I was walking through the Mexikoplatz and saw this little girl, dressed head to toe in pink and bundled up against the cold, strolling down the sidewalk by herself looking extraordinarily self-possessed. Five or so years old, and not an adult to be seen—I looked up and down the street, surprised. She paused, pulled a cell phone out of her pocket, and, in the most casual of ways, made a call. She then wandered back and forth a bit in a relaxed pacing pattern as she did whatever the hell business a five-year-old has to conduct by cell phone in the middle of a busy city.

It was simultaneously adorable and terribly alienating.  Here, see for yourself:

Hey, Mom. What's up? Listen, can you fill me in on the status of those TPS reports?
Hey, Mom. Glad I caught you. Listen, can you fill me in on the status of those TPS reports?

The relative hugeness of her pink backpack is a clue to how little she was.

The following week, snow struck. Vienna was covered—in fact, it was angezuckert (read more about that here). I was very proud of myself, the intrepid American, for going jogging in the midst of the storm in the Prater, Vienna’s equivalent of Central Park, despite the difficult conditions and the falling darkness. “Nicely done, ” I said to myself. “That’s the American spirit right there—never give up!” And in general the Prater was as quiet and empty as you would expect a park to be at 5 PM on a snowy early-evening. In Austria. In February.

Except for this woman, easily in her late 60s, sitting casually on a bench along the Hauptallee, sending a text message:



Now, that is the spirit of not giving up! American independence has nothing on Alpine stoicism, it seems.

Of course, I hate the phone and prefer to send emails rather than text messages. This makes it nearly impossible to get anything done here. But more on that another time.


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What Not To Wear

Passing through the Ringstrassengalerie (that’s like a miniature mall in the first district in Vienna), I paused to ponder a rather high-end shoe store’s window display:

What Not To Wear

Now, I realize the photo is both blurry and poorly lined up, for which I apologize. It was taken on the fly, with my iPhone, as all the women working in the shop stared out at me. I’m a bit tired of getting yelled at in Vienna (that’s, like, a thing here—people yell at one far more than the average American is accustomed to), so I didn’t want to linger there lining up my shot. But I think the photo is distinct enough for you to see that this is a display of a variety of styles of shoes, all adorned with spiked brass studs. In fact, spiked shoes like these are all over the place in Viennese shops.

I would like to go on the record as saying that this is a Very Bad Thing.

I get that the craze originates with Christian Louboutin and Sam Edelman. And I’ll confess to at one point having been intrigued by a couple of pairs with studs (not so much spikes) just spattering up the heel. That has (or had—I’m over it now) a whiff of intrigue and a bit of play. But I feel that a pair of, for instance, ballet flats (already what I would deem a Bad Thing) crusted like a couple of fetal stegosauruses is a bridge too far.

One of my basic rules for shoes is that while they can be ridiculously high-heeled and come in a wide range of unmatchable colors, they do actually have to be wearable. One is not an orchid, to sit upon a shelf.  All I see when I look at these shoes is what it would be like to try to cross one’s legs in the tight space underneath a restaurant table. I hear the cries of pain and irritation as I impale my neighbors and shred my own hosiery. I imagine the crash of dishes as I get hung up in the table cloth, and I can practically feel the hem of my coat ripping as it catches on my heel. And how sad will these shoes look look when one or two of the spikes fall off? That’s all leaving aside the unpleasantly fetishy impression they give off.

I vote no. You?


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Austrian Medicine, Part I

For the last few weeks, I’ve had this thing where I’m constantly clearing my throat. I had a sore throat and a cold in Italy in January, and it left in its wake this aggravating sensation of an irritation in my throat. I came back to Austria and went to the doctor. He said, “It’s probably a virus, give it a week.” In that week, I came down with a horrendous cold, which buried the throat clearing under a tidal wave of snot. That lasted two weeks, and when I resurfaced, the throat clearing was back with a vengeance. “Damn,” I said, and headed off to another doctor, one rumored to be an excellent diagnostician.

This doctor gave me a couple of prescriptions. One is for my stomach, because acid reflux can cause this. The other is for God-only-knows-what. Snot, presumably, because the other thing that causes this condition is the slow drip of mucus down the throat, sliming the vocal cords to the point where one has to “clean” them. Thus the constant, noisy, and embarrassing throat-clearing. By the way, I use the word “slime” advisedly, because the German word for mucus is Schleim.

You’re welcome.

Anyway, I went to get the prescription, and an amusing and informative ritual ensued. By way of comparison, let’s look at an American prescription bottle (discretely turned to protect the innocent, i.e., me):


Notice just how much text is involved, and how many instructions (this is not including the page of printed instructions that came with the bottle). All kinds of info about when and where it was dispensed, how to take it, how not to take it, how much alcohol not to ever, ever drink with it, why not to operate heavy machinery while under its influence, how pregnant not to be while taking it, etc., etc.


Now, let’s take a look at what I got from the Apotheke in Vienna:


When you pick up your pills, a nice lady in a white coat takes out a felt-tipped pen, just like the one your grandma used to use to write the birthday card she sent with your yearly $10. She then writes, by hand, the complete instructions for taking the medicine. 1-1-1 means one pill morning, noon and night, and the rest of the text says, “for three days, then as needed.” My name is nowhere on the package, nor are there dire warnings about possible risks to myself, my automobile, and my unborn child. If I have a medicine cabinet in a multi-person household—and I do—then I’d better remember which meds are mine, because the package won’t tell me. And if I have questions about what this stuff is (and I’m not totally sure what it is), I’m out of luck, because nowhere does it say from which pharmacy I actually got it.

In addition to being charming and funny, I think this says a great deal about cultural differences in the concept of liability.

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The Kunstkammer Easily Exceeds Expectation

The Kunstkammer in the KHM (the Kunsthistorisches Museum) has been closed for as long as I’ve been coming to Vienna, and longer. It reopened this weekend to great fanfare, and I spent the first sunny Saturday in months (for which I get bonus points) as one of the earliest visitors. It is simply and absolutely spectacular.

The works in the Kunstkammer are difficult to characterize in general, and especially within a museum setting; they’re a legacy of medieval notions of collecting, extended by the Habsburgs into the 17th century, that did not follow modern forms of classification. Despite the name (Kunstkammer means literally “art room”, though it refers to a concept more than a space), the collection intermingles painting and sculpture with works that float between categories — highly altered natural objects, aesthetic inventions, and refined creations out of precious materials executed at the limit of the craftsman’s skill. For example, these intricately carved ivory vessels:


Such objects—and there is no single term for them—were an enormous part of Habsburg collecting, but in modern museums they are separated off from the works of painting and sculpture defined as “high art” by academies; at very roughly the same time, they ceased to fit the “art vs. nature” taxonomy that, as a result of changing notions of science, came to define museums and their collections. But it is for precisely this reason that the works of the Kunstkammer are so extraordinary—they are either unlike anything else, or the very best examples of their highly unusual kind.

For the last decade, the works in this part of the erstwhile Habsburg collections were hidden away, or distributed somewhat haphazardly through the other galleries. It was this redistribution, combined with the ongoing reconstruction, that provided the opportunity for a thief, in 2003, to make off with the collection’s most famous occupant:  the Salt-cellar, or Saliera, executed by Benvenuto Cellini in the 1540s.


The Saliera is a highly elaborate piece of royal tableware; originally made for the king of France, a minimal 1/8th or so of its surface is occupied by a little bowl for holding salt, which at the time was a precious commodity. The remainder is a mythological extravagance representing the mingling of Ceres and Neptune to make salt, as well as figures of the four winds and the times of day. It’s a riot, and I have been in love with it since I was a freshman in college. I’ve taught the Saliera dozens of times, waxed on about its brilliance, and was traumatized by its theft—but oddly enough, thanks to the timing of its disappearance and the closure of the Kunstkammer, I’d never actually seen it.

Until yesterday.

It did not disappoint. The Saliera is vastly more astonishing in person than in reproductions—the sheer intricacy of the thing was beyond anything even I had expected. Not to mention that there are a host of animals swimming across its surface that don’t show up clearly in photos. I found myself saying things like, “Holy moly!” and “Unbelievable!”, no doubt to the deep joy of my fellow visitors.

Cellini's Saliera, At Last

Neptune in Repose

Overall, my experience of the Kunstkammer generally mirrored that of the Saliera: It’s simply great. If one theme holds together the wild diversity of objects housed there, it is that they were largely created to signal artistic and imperial dominance over all of art and nature, and possession of the kind of wealth and power that can command the best of each—not to mention the ability to hire the kind of labor capable of reshaping them. Far from diverging the fruits of divine and human endeavor, the Kunstkammer craftsmen deliberately crossed the wires of creation, yielding objects like this ostrich egg/coral/silver/gold extravaganza:

Ostrich Egg Extravaganza

Whatever material you would like to see brought to its absolute limits of intricate artistic refinement—bronze, marble, precious stones, wood, ivory, metal, paint—it’s all there. Among my favorites — the room (room) of ivories contains this phoenix—a true testament to the artist’s ability to transform one living material into another living form and, not coincidentally, a somewhat oblique reference to the Habsburg eagle:

Phoenix, Rising

I’d like to write more about some of the specific themes of the Kunstkammer later — the game sets, for instance, and the automatons, as well as the medallions and small portraits (not to mention the small bronzes….gorgeous). But for the moment let me just say — get thee to the Kunstkammer, GO. And right now is the perfect moment. The sun is shining, and all of Vienna is outside, pretending like it’s spring. The tourists have not yet arrived. The galleries on Saturday afternoon were practically empty.


Posted in Adventures, Art, Culture, Regan Writing | Tagged , , | 3 Comments