Monthly Archives: June 2013

A Tale of Two Sauces

When I come to Vienna, there are two things I always bring with me: a pound of brown sugar, and a bottle of sriracha sauce. The brown sugar is because they have none here, and if you try to bake without it you wind up with some pretty strange results. It is possible to make your own, of course, by mixing white sugar and molasses. But they don’t have molasses here, either. To get molasses you need to go to an international grocery, and by the time you’ve made that effort, you don’t feel like baking anymore. So I pack a pound of sugar in my suitcase and figure that’s a free pound I have for gifts on the return trip to the US.

The sriracha is a somewhat more complicated matter. They actually do have sriracha here, lots of it, in all the Asian grocery stores and some non-Asian ones as well. Go out for fast food noodles and they’re likely to have a bottle of it on the counter. It is, however, subtly different from the familiar kind you get in America. Here, take a look:

Do not be fooled. Just because they are both winged birds with short tempers does NOT mean that they taste the same.
Do not be fooled. Just because they are both large birds with short tempers does NOT mean that they taste the same.

The bottle on the left is American sriracha, hand-imported from California by me. The bottle on the right is Viennese sriracha, of the sort you get everywhere here. The American has a rooster; the Viennese has a goose. The American is more orange in color; the Viennese a rustier red. The Viennese is a little thicker and less squirtable (squirtability being essential for those of us who spritz the stuff all over our pizza). And the American also tastes roughly 100,000x better than the Viennese.

I’m not sure what it is. There’s kind of raw spice flavor to the goose sauce that I don’t care for; it tastes like a slightly different pepper variety; it’s also not got that perfect sriracha balance of sweet with hot; and it doesn’t have as much vinegary goodness. Whatever the mix that’s used for the rooster sauce, it accepts no imitators. But unfortunately, the rooster is seriously hard to find here.

My solution to this has been to bring a gigantic bottle with me every time I come from the US. (Note the scale of the rooster bottle in comparison to the already large-size goose bottle.) I’ve also conducted a search of most of the Asian stores in Vienna, in the Naschmarkt and wherever else I encounter one (there’s one in the second district, for instance, that I’ve searched several times). I finally came across one, lone, jumbo-sized rooster bottle nested amidst a sea of geese at this store, on the Rechte Wienzeile by the Naschmarkt:

I tracked down a bottle of rooster sauce in this store, on the Rechte Wienzeile by the Naschmarkt. It was the last bottle they had in stock. I bought it even though I still have some at home. I am that worried about getting my hands on this stuff here.
I tracked down a bottle of rooster sauce in this store, on the Rechte Wienzeile by the Naschmarkt. It was the last bottle they had in stock. I bought it even though I still have some at home. I am that worried about getting my hands on this stuff here.

If you’re visiting Vienna, remember, it’s BYOS(auce). And, rooster, not goose.

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The Natural History Museum: Where Imperial Hunting Trophy Meets Scientific Specimen

Vienna’s Natural History Museum is an extraordinary place. If you like your natural history museums super old-school, with taxidermied animals that the emperor and his buddies shot back in the 19th century; if you enjoy a specimen case that blends handwritten labels from early in the last century with formaldehyde-embalmed animals that are probably even older; if you are looking to identify giant rook that attacked your head while you were out jogging the other day and thus want to search through an exceptionally rich collection of dead birds; if you consider the empress’ dog, taxidermied, to be an element of natural history; if you like to see your modern touches (an animatronic dinosaur, for instance) against the backdrop of 19th century nude sculptures—well then, friend, the Vienna NHM is the place for you.

There were so many amazing sights in this museum (it’s the one straight across from its more famous twin, the art museum or Kunsthistorisches Museen) that I can’t embed them in the post. Check out this gallery though, and click on the images to make them full-size and learn about all that is strange and wonderful at the NHM.

 

 

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Brno: The Poor Man’s Prague

Last weekend, tired of rainy, cold Vienna, we decided to head for the Czech Republic, where the sun actually briefly shone. The usual destination would be Prague, which is all the rage these days as a next stop for Vienna visitors, but if you only have a day or two for traveling, you might want to do what we did and head for Brno instead.

Prague is over 3 hours by train, and too rich a city for a weekend trip. Brno, on the other hand, is about an hour and a half by train—not far across the Czech border. But though it’s a short jump away, it feels very unlike Vienna. Some features are recognizable—the Habsburgs were obviously there, for instance. One can see it in the architecture:

So it looks. Our hotel — 4 stars, and with an interior worthy of Bela Lugosi — is on the right.
So it looks. Our hotel — 4 stars, and with an interior worthy of Bela Lugosi — is on the right.
Facade of house in Brno, Czech Republic
Bits of Brno recall the way Vienna must have looked before recent cleanings gave it its current sugar-sweet appearance. The architecture is familiar, yet alien and atmospheric. I loved it.

And in things like this over-the-top fountain (by the Viennese court architect Fischer von Erlach):

The Parnas Fountain, a late-17th-century extravaganza by the Viennese court architect, Fischer von Erlach.
I like the mold all over this. You’d never see that in Vienna, but it’s so atmospheric.

At the same time, there was a pleasantly Eastern European feeling of socialist-style architecture and run-down businesses. Vienna is too rich for this sort of thing these days:

You don't see stuff like this in Vienna anymore, more's the pity. I love me some Eastern Europe.
You don’t see stuff like this in Vienna anymore, more’s the pity. I love me some Eastern Europe.

In the city center, a vegetable market is held against the backdrop of a mishmash of these historical moments:

I love the mix of medieval, Baroque, and Soviet-era architecture on this main market square, where the sun was shining and the potatoes were plentiful.
I love the mix of medieval, Baroque, and modern-era architecture on this main market square, where the sun was shining and the potatoes were plentiful.

On the upscale side, take a bit of a walk uphill out of town (winding through the edges of the city, where we took the photo of the lonely Tabak) and you come to an extraordinary early functionalist villa by Mies van der Rohe. The Villa Tugendhat was built for a young Jewish industrialist couple; it was seized by the Gestapo after they fled to Switzerland, and eventually transferred to the city of Brno, which, at times in cooperation with the family, has restored it several times. The villa has reopened after its most recent restoration, in 2012; its ownership is contested by the family, who have asked for restitution (for a summary of those events, read this). Its history is bitter and conflicted, but the building is an unmixed statement of purely functionalist architectural principles:

The Villa Tugendhat, seen here from the garden side, is inaccessible, both geographically (it's well outside the city center) and logistically (to go inside, you need to book months in advance). But it is a Mies van der Rohe masterpiece of early functionalist modernism, and well worth the hike up the hill.
The Villa Tugendhat, seen here from the garden side, is inaccessible, both geographically (it’s well outside the city center) and logistically (to go inside, you need to book months in advance). But it is a Mies van der Rohe masterpiece of early functionalist modernism, and well worth the hike up the hill.

Back in town, you can visit a Capuchin crypt, where bodies, mummified in the open air, provide a bracing confrontation with one’s mortality:

I feel that I have erred thus far in my life by taking too little interest in Capuchin monks, who do these crazy open-air mummifications in sprawling crypts. The one in Rome is, I gather, the lodestone of Capuchin crypts, but this one was a good introduction. Here you see one room among the dozen or so filled with skeletons (most of the others are in coffins). Without exception, all of the other visitors when we went were families with children. Keepin' it real, Europe!
I feel that I have erred thus far in my life by taking too little interest in Capuchin friars, who do these crazy open-air mummifications in sprawling crypts. The one in Rome is, I gather, the lodestone of Capuchin crypts, but this one was a good introduction. Here you see one room among the dozen or so filled with skeletons (most of the others are in coffins). Without exception, all of the other visitors when we went were families with children. Keepin’ it real, Europe!

Oh, cheer up. The beer in the Czech Republic is some of the best in the world, and there were also fresh peas:

My motto is, "Everything's better with peas." SUPER PEAS!!
My motto is, “Everything’s better with peas.” SUPER PEAS!!

One last reason to visit Brno:  Because trying to pronounce Czech is fun!! Schladzscky! Moravuschky! Hurayescheschk! Or something.

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Cultural Differences, Television Edition

Europeans have a higher tolerance for government intrusiveness than do Americans. I don’t think anything in that statement will surprise my American friends, nor yet my European ones. But there’s saying that, and then there’s the ways it plays out. This brings us to the example of the ORF—that is, Austrian public broadcasting. Specifically, the TV and radio.

Americans, familiar with PBS’ sad-sack pledge drives, weepy pleas to “get up off your good intentions and get to the phone,” and tote bags that look like they came with the dinginess pre-applied, will find the behavior of the ORF unrecognizable. Basically, if you have a television or radio in Austria—even if you literally never turn it to ORF (which is impossible, because ORF has multiple channels, including regional ones for each state in the country, plus a sports network)—you are obligated to pay up. It’s not that cheap: somewhere around 30 euros per month. And you pay that even if you are also paying for cable.

Ok, you say, that’s fine, my American tax dollars go to pay for PBS even though I hate Garrison Keillor (as you should). And that’s true, they do—but the IRS collects those dollars and gives them to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Here, the ORF come to your house and demand to inspect the interior, and if they find a television or theoretically even just a radio there, they can slap you with a fine (which can be up to around 2,000 euros) and then make you pay monthly for all eternity. In principle, they can even fine you if you just have a computer, since you can watch or listen to the ORF online, though the TV is the biggest target. All this for the dubious privilege of watching Dancing Stars (yes, it’s the same show, and no, the stars are not any more famous).

Let me reiterate—inspectors roam the city, insisting on entering people’s private homes and looking at their media devices. And not only that! If the ORF has reason to believe you are malingering on your dues-paying duties, I am told by a semi-reliable source that they can return to your house with the police, and force you to let them search the place for televisions!! I have even heard a rumor from a highly reliable source (that being my spouse, who is German, not Austrian) that the ORF has special television-detecting vans in which they drive around the city, searching with their TV-dedicated radar vision for apartments that have televisions but are not paying the monthly fee.

I know. 

A couple of thoughts on this. First of all, what the fuck, Austria? The whole benefit of the European method of taxation is that it’s supposed to be more efficient than ours—everybody pays a giant load of taxes in return for a whole bunch of services. Why, of all things, is the ORF the one form of payment done piecemeal? They should just do what we still (barely) do in the US, and tax everyone on the grounds that the shared airwaves are a limited public resource. Also, how inefficient is it to go house to house and ring doorbells, especially since every single person in this country by now knows better than to answer the door during the day? (The foreigner is of course the last to learn. Sigh.)

Lastly, can you imagine anything like this in the US? Just how many PBS inspectors would have to get shot in the face on people’s front porches (or in the back, running down their front steps) before we would call it off? Even I—a law-abiding citizen of quiet habits—would under no circumstances let the police in my house in the absence of a valid search warrant and the advice of a lawyer. (Do bear in mind, however, that the Austrian police are much less violent and terrifying than their American counterparts. Even so.) And not just me; even dedicated right-wingers would start believing in the virtues of the search warrant.

Seriously, Austria. Throw off the chains of ORF oppression. You should not have to hide your televisions!!

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On the U-Bahn the Other Day

Not long ago, I had cause to mention the concept of Tracht, that is, traditional Austrian clothing. I was sorry, though, that my photographic example on that occasion was so static, because the real pleasure of Tracht is seeing it on the hoof, so to speak. That’s why I was thrilled the other day when I came out of the gym and went into the U1 station at Kagran, and found this guy waiting for the train:

This man and I exist in the same universe. In fact, we are going to ride the same train.
This man and I exist in the same universe. In fact, we are going to ride the same train.
It's not every man who can pull off this head-to-toe ensemble, but this guy's got it.
It’s not every man who can pull off this head-to-toe ensemble—Lederhosen, Tyrolean hat, two different plaids!—but this guy’s got it. And he’s going to take it all the way into the city center.

Yep. And that’s how it was that day.

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