Category Archives: Culture

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.

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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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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.

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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.

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Schloss Ambras: Curiouser and Curiouser

On a couple of occasions in my long and diverse teaching career, I’ve been asked to teach a course on museum studies. A prominent feature of that course — and it’s a really fun course to teach, by the way — is a series of lectures on cabinets of curiosities. These are essentially the early modern precursor to the museum, ad hoc collections of all manner of materials strange, unusual, marvelous, and beautiful. The cabinet of curiosities is a concept with enormous range — with origins in Italian studioli (little studies) and royal treasuries, it takes a particularly elaborate form in the collections of the Austrian Habsburgs, who bought, stole, commissioned, or were given every imaginable kind of object.

I’ve written about some of the fruits of this collecting before—indeed, the newly reopened Kunstkammer in the KHM in Vienna has the very best objects from the Habsburg cabinet of curiosities (at its height called a Wunderkammer); these objects were, in the late 19th century, split off from the paintings and sculptures, and from the naturalia, that became the basis of the rest of the KHM and of the neighboring NHM (about which I’ve also written). But if you want to see the collections of rare and precious objects presented as they would have appeared in the 16th century—that is, at the height of European craftsmanship—you need to head to Innsbruck, and to Schloss Ambras. Here, the collections of Archduke Ferdinand II, ruler of Tyrol, can be seen still in their original setting, some of them in their original display chambers. It’s a rare and extraordinary window into Renaissance collecting—and also just some really cool shit.

The castle/palace complex is 16th century, with gardens set against a spectacular Alpine backdrop that you unfortunately can’t see while looking at the palace, rather from it (who gets the good view? The inhabitants, that’s who):

Schloss Ambras

 Schloss Ambras, Grounds

 Inside, the first room you come to is a large hall of armor—some of it rather interesting. The armor has an incredible intricacy; this was, after all, the 16th century, and Habsburg gear. It was more likely to be used for parades than for riding into actual battle. Also, these people were seriously tiny.

Armor Ambras

There were also some pretty weird choices—like these helmets given the shape of Moors’ faces, to be worn by archdukes and their like.

Schloss Ambras, Inexplicable Objects
Um….what?

“What were they thinking?” you ask. Good question. In further rooms you can see the cabinet of curiosities as it was originally displayed in the 16th century. This is a rare, indeed unique, opportunity, because most objects that were originally part of these collections are scattered, with their original settings destroyed, and only inventories give a sense of how they might have been assembled. At Schloss Ambras, you can see that the collection is organized according to a set of taxonomic principles that make little sense to modern minds. That is, by material, regardless of any other consideration (for example, art vs. nature).

Schloss Ambras, Curiosities

Among the highly curious objects in the collection, a sort of carved coral diorama of the Crucifixion:

IMG_6891

A carved wood dancing death:

Dancing Death

And, in a corner that it shares with a tree trunk that has grown around a set of deer’s antlers, you will find a taxidermied forerunner to the early work of Damien Hirst:

IMG_6909

Shark Ambras

Wait…let’s get a better look at those antlers, shall we?

Antlers Ambras

The collection does not distinguish, as I said, between works of art and nature, and so it includes a series of paintings of the extraordinary hirsute family of Pedro Gonzalez, a Spanish man who was part of the court of Margaret of Parma, the governor of the Netherlands:

The Family of Pedro Gonzalez

No doubt such hirsutism caused the family distress. But surely it was better than a sharp stick in your eye. Not sure? Consider the trials and tribulations of one Gregor Baci, unsuccessful jouster:

Ambras Injury

Gregor’s portrait is just one of the dozens upon dozens in Ambras’ extensive and quite quality portrait collection; you can also see many of the original rooms (including an incredible bathroom with a deep pool meant to be kept warm with heated stones). In contemplating what picture to give you in closing, I choose this incredible example, which I think captures the curiosity’s concept of limitlessness. Why live in a world with a concept of the impossible, when you could instead live with this guy:

My God, that is a hat and a half. The whole idea of riding a horse in that thing is incredible. Why is the horse not running from it in terror? Perhaps he is. Perhaps that is what this painting is really of.
My God, that is a hat and a half. The whole idea of riding a horse in that thing is incredible. Why is the horse not running from it in terror? Perhaps he is. Perhaps that is what this painting is really of.
Posted in Adventures, Around Austria, Art, Culture, Regan Writing | 1 Comment

Now You Know

Not long ago, I had the opportunity to go to a giant flea market, where I saw a set of airline seats for sale, presumably to decorate some lucky person’s home. As I recall, I snarked about the fact that nothing says “living room” like the experience of flying coach, and a sharp-eyed commenter pointed out that these were, in fact, seats from first class. I think that only marginally improves things, but ok.

But in case you were wondering who would actually buy a set of used transit seats and put them in their home, look no farther. Last week our downstairs neighbors moved out, and temporarily placed a row of blue seats in the building’s entryway. I can’t tell if they’re van or bus? They still have seatbelts attached. I ran to get a camera. Here they are:

These seats do not recline. They also do not belong in our hallway.
These seats do not recline. They have no tray table to put in the fully upright position. They also do not belong in our hallway.

You’d think they were here prior to being thrown out, but no. A pair of large men came with a van and took away these seats along with a giant pile of boxes. The seats were moving on to a new apartment as well, it seems.

It takes all kinds.

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Absence and Presence

Jewish Vienna is a constant balance of absence and presence. The history of Jews here is sitting in the open, and it is hidden everywhere. This may be why I resonate with it so strongly. I am entirely Ashkenazi Jewish on my mother’s side; my grandmother’s mother was born in Lithuania, my grandfather’s parents in Poland. All of them were in the US long before the second world war—they arrived closer to the Civil War. I know literally nothing about them beyond this. They are specters, along with all the family they left behind in Europe.

Pre-Sabbath shopping, facilitated by a scooter.
Pre-Sabbath shopping in the 2nd district, facilitated by a scooter.

And yet, the Holocaust is a kind of proxy for knowledge; it gives a false sense that one can understand something of the ancestral experience vicariously via the six million. People who would be my distant cousins — who would be “me,” had my ancestors not struck out for foreign lands — went through a sequence of experiences that it’s possible via historical narrative to imagine (again, falsely) that one could know. And at the same time, the past is past, and shall remain as such. These things are irreconcilable. Yet they coexist. I am deeply drawn to that conflict; and since it can’t be resolved, I try to live within it.

Vienna is constantly, uncomfortably exposing the seams between various pasts and the present. In Vienna, the story of Europe’s Jews, and their near eradication, is laid out spatially across the city’s geography.  The messages these sites send are complicated, troubling. They refuse to nurture that desire that the past be contained and narratable, owned by the present—and rightly so. Here, for example, is a sculpture along the Ringstrasse (the main road encircling the city center, built on the eradicated foundations of the medieval city walls):

Not exactly a humble monument, either.
Karl Lueger, orating. Not exactly a humble monument, either.

That is Karl Lueger, surveying the Platz that bears his name. In fact, there used to be an entire section of the Ring named for him; it’s now called the Universitätsring in an effort to address increasingly loud complaints about Lueger’s name all over Vienna’s most important street. Karl Lueger is bit by bit losing his eponymous locations. Lueger was mayor of Vienna from 1897 to 1910, though he’d been elected earlier — his opponents, including the emperor, temporarily kept him from office. He was the founder of the Christian Social Party, which succeeded largely by channeling the religious, social and economic frustrations of German-speaking Austrians and petit-bourgeois business people. He was populist, but anti-capitalist and anti-socialist, both systems he attributed to Jews. He was vocally anti-semitic, blaming Jews for the financial struggles of Austrian workers and shopkeepers.

Typical apologies for Lueger’s attitudes involve a sense that his anti-semitism was merely political (as if that makes it better); that he had friends who were Jews (leading to his famous statement, “I decide who is a Jew”); that he didn’t actually try to murder any Jews (though he did limit their participation in government and education); and that he modernized Vienna by regularizing the water and gas systems and integrating the outlying districts (the old “Mussolini made the trains run on time” line).

Thin gruel—though all of these excuses, such as they are, are true. Including that he was vocally anti-semitic, aware of the benefit this attitude was to his political ambitions, and that he abetted a thread of Austrian anti-semitism so virulent it even surprised the Germans upon their, um, arrival. Despite constant complaints about Karl Lueger Platz and the sculpture upon it, it remains in place. Most tourists have no idea who he was; most Viennese give the whole thing a shrug. I am conflicted, having gone from being scandalized, to thinking that whitewashing history by erasing its shameful elements doesn’t do anyone any favors. I don’t like Lueger; I also don’t like whitewash. I would prefer that Karl Lueger Platz provided some context not only for who Lueger was and the moment in which he lived, but also for why a previous generation had such an unconflicted attitude to him. Of course, that is not what monuments like this do.

From Karl Lueger Platz, head north and west and cross the Canal into the second district, and you will find a rather different sort of landmark. Here, you are in the historical Jewish district of Vienna, the Leopoldstadt (ironically, it is named for the emperor who expelled the Jews from Vienna in 1670). This was never a ghetto. But the Nazis did force Jews to relocate to this district, and eventually deported them from it. 130,000 or so Jews emigrated from Vienna as a result of Nazi efforts; some 65,000 were deported from Austria and murdered. The 2nd district was besieged over a seven-year period beginning with the Kristallnacht, and the traces are present—if you know where to look for them. Here in the Grosse Schiffgasse, for instance, is what looks at first glance like any other empty lot:

Between the corrugated metal and billboards was once a synagogue.
Between the corrugated metal and billboards was once a synagogue.

I’m going to give you a piece of advice:  In this part of Europe, always suspect the empty lot near the urban center. In this case, the lot in question was the site of a 19th century synagogue. There were a couple dozen of these in Vienna in the 1930s; only one survived the Kristallnacht pogrom of November 1938. It wasn’t this one.

There may be a plaque in the area to commemorate the loss, as there are on other former synagogue sites (I’ll show you some another time); if so, I couldn’t find it. The building next door was a part of the original complex, and now hosts a couple of Jewish institutions, invisible from the street. But the original site of the Schiffschul (named for the street) still stands empty, with no decision as to what it will be, and therefore what it will mean.

The entire second district near the canal needs to be looked at in terms of these kinds of losses, and the way that the city has, like thickly poured oil, both filled and exposed them. Only a few obsessives like me know what this empty lot was, or means. But would it be more “true” to the history of the place if there were a monument there, something modern, apologetic, and inspiring?

What do you say to this ground floor room, in a building near the Karmelitermarkt, which a history of the Jewish establishments in the 2nd district tells me was once a prayer room, now an architecture office:

Once a prayerhouse, now an architecture office.
Once a prayerhouse, now an architecture office.

Should it be emptied out? Returned to someone (to whom? How?)? Is it sufficient, or excessive, or unnecessary, or fortuitous, or essential, or intrusive, that I, an American half-Jew, showed up here and looked up its address and told its current occupants that, before 1938, it was a place for Jewish prayer (not a synagogue — something much less formal)? The occupants were surprised and pleased to know of its long history. I was happy to discover and share that history.

None of which resolved anything at all.

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