Sunday, November 25, 2012

Rotcreutzball - Learning to be Viennese

Something that Vienna does that you’d never see in America is ball season.  Balls for everything.  They’re the big, expensive parties that you’ve only dreamed of – a live band is playing waltzes or jazz, everyone dressed to the nines swirling around on an open dance floor, chandeliers lit and everything glowing with in the colors of class and aristocracy.  It’s fairytale-esque. 

When I was planning on going to Vienna and looking at what the city had to offer, ball season was one of the things I just couldn’t pass up.  What girl doesn’t want a chance to feel like a princess?

Going to a ball is a major social event here.  Highschoolers take dance lessons for at least two years to learn how to tango, rhumba, cha-cha-cha, foxtrot, and waltz.  The Viennese waltz is essential with its one-two-three beat and accompanying step.  It’s not straight one-two-three, however.  The ‘um – pah – pah’ feel is delayed a bit in a way that I can only comprehend as syncopated but here it is expected.

So I found myself at the Rotcreutzball (Red Cross Ball) in a thrifted black gown from Humana.  I’d been taking a semester of dance courses from Tanzschule Elmeyer and wanted to try my hand, as well as see what the fuss was all about.  Late in the evening, a group of friends and I (some studying in Italy and visiting for the weekend) boarded the U-Bahn to get to the Rathaus.

The Rathaus at night.

If the neo-gothic façade of the Rathaus glows intimidatingly huge from the street, the interior is only the next step.  Crystalline chandeliers hung everywhere from under the vaulted ceilings.  Red carpets lined the many stairways leading up to the main ballroom.  Paintings and tapestries hung from the walls.  Though it was only built in the late 1800’s, the Rathaus, situated like a platter of cake on the Ringstβe is a sight to behold.

I’ve heard that visitors to Vienna will most likely remember the Ringstraβe better than the historic (and older) buildings that are actually inside of the first district.  It circles the area as a wide boulevard, where a massive wall used to stand protecting Vienna.  In the 1840s it became an obstacle, working against its protective purpose as a fortification for rebels.  Thus, Emperor Franz Joseph commissioned the wall’s demise, replacing it with some of the most iconic buildings of Vienna today.  Each was built in a different architectural style to match the purpose of the building – the university is in a neo-renaissance style to signify the ideals of the enlightenment, and the parliament is in a neo-attic style to symbolize the Democracy of ancient Athens. 

This is the kind of history you walk into when you step into any of the Ringstraβe buildings, the Rathaus included.  A re-building of sorts – the purpose of this construction at the time was to make a place where both the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie could mingle in places of common interest.  Attending a ball for the first time, I felt this same kind of connect.

Though my dress was thrifted and a little out-dated, I fell right into the middle with denizens of the Rotcreutzball.  Everyone looked elegant.  Ladies in their floor-length gowns, sweeping across the hall with a glass of wine in their hands and men in their tuxedos gracefully leading the ladies around to the tune of a Strauss waltz – everyone was on the same level regardless of the type of ticket that was purchased.  


My friends and I had student tickets; the cheapest you could find and at a steal for 35 euro.  This just means getting in but not having a place to stand.  Though the place was pretty full when we arrived, it cleared out around midnight and we had no problem copping a table to sit and relax our feet. 

I can’t express how weirdly in and out of place I felt at the same time.  I’ve never done this before.  My attempts to waltz were passable, but not amazing, and even less-so compared to the other dancers spinning around me.  In the States, a ball such as this would be reserved to the upper- upper- class, and would be relatively unheard of.  When’s the last time an American needed to buy a floor-length gown?

I was dressed to code, had the proper dance shoes, even the right pair of earrings and hairstyle to fit in.  But because I was so unaccustomed to the idea of a ball, and one that I could attend, I spent most of the evening staring at the other dancers in awe.  

 The dancers.  These couples were incredible to watch.
It was just like you always hear good dancing is - it's
like watching them float on air.

Like most parties, however, everything gets leveled out when the attendees have had enough to drink.  Once the wine was freely flowing around the patrons, I saw a couple scenes that were no different from what you would experience at a regular bar.  A man bought a massive pastry just because it was funny, everyone wanted to take pictures with a midget, and a couple was making out in a shady corner of the carpeted staircase.  I guess the only real difference was the presumed atmosphere that is presented when you first step in.

Like I said, I did waltz.  My small training prepared me just enough not to fall down and to just follow whoever was leading me.  Teaching a lady to follow… I compare it to breaking in a horse, but that’s another matter entirely.  I also attempted a polka, which sent me hopping across the dance floor, gritting my teeth, holding on for dear life to the arms of the man that had asked me to dance.  I’m learning.

The experience was nothing like the clubbing experience I’ve had in Vienna.  At a ball, almost everyone can dance gracefully with a partner to almost any genre of ‘classical’ music.  The night after, I went to a club called Praterdome.  The Viennese tend to have a good sense of class, but there it’s a little bit different atmosphere.  Neon lights, strobes, and lasers replace chandeliers, and a deep bass that vibrates bones takes the place of an orchestra.  Different kind of fun.

Technically, ball season in Vienna doesn’t start until January, but now I know a bit more about what to expect.  Maybe by then I’ll even have improved my dancing.  

Sunday, November 4, 2012

An Afternoon with Klimt

           For those of you that are not aware, Vienna (and most of the world) is currently celebrating the 150th birthday of Gustav Klimt.  A healthy plethora of exhibits of original artwork have cropped up since January to honor Vienna’s home-grown painter and many have extended their exhibition closings to January 2013.  There’s even a Gustav Klimt: The Musical floating around at the KünstlerhausWien, for those that don’t do art so much as they do theater.

            Even were it Klimt off-season, Vienna would be scattered with Klimt-residue in the form of kitschy this-and-that hanging from gift-shop windows.  It’s like the spirit of the man will never really leave – you can purchase prints of TheKiss or Adele Bloch-Bauer adorning handbags, scarves, novelty pins, and refrigerator magnets nearly anywhere you go.

            The golden sheen of Kilmt’s work hangs over Vienna, and it was high time I went to actually see one of his works in the museum.  Tis the season, after all.

            I elected to go to the Kunsthistorisches Museum, as my school provides a discounted year-pass that gets me entrance and it’s within walking distance from my house.  While they do not fool you into thinking that they have one of the world-famous paintings that defined Klimt’s style to the world, they do have something entirely their own – a series of wall paintings that a 28-year-old Klimt himself did to decorate the main entry staircase.

            The story of how he came to this assignment is actually a little sad.  He wasn’t the first pick of the museum, no.  The artist that was originally commissioned to do the work died after finishing about 50% of the entire task.  Klimt, accompanied by a few other artists from an art organization of his, stepped in.

            The Kunsthistorisches Museum erected a large scaffolding in the entryway which upon climbing, allows the museum-goer a close-up view of Klimt’s early works.  Walking in and looking up, I became doubtful that his work would even be noticed by the casual observer were the scaffolding and big, bold “KLIMT” signs weren’t so blatant.  But, because stairs are there and we’re always inclined to ascend, one goes right up to be nose-to-nose with the young painter.

Because it’s the entryway to an art museum, the overwhelming theme of the staircase is that of ‘art through the ages’.  While this entire painting was completed in 1891 with the Klimt canvases, it seems to assume an interesting complete history of art and time, represented by some painters that would later become renowned for their own work.  The section-of-interest, the Klimts, rendered human figures as art movements starting with Ancient Egyptian art.

While these paintings are nowhere near the fame and notoriety that his later works would achieve, I noticed that many themes would echo hints of his later style.  The erotic nudity of the female figure, the gold leaf halos around religious beings, the influence of fabric patterns draped around the body; all of these elements were apparent.

However, I felt a little guilty getting nose-to-nose with some of these paintings.  How often had tourists passed through this museum, audio guide pressed hard to left ear, getting to the ‘real’ exhibits full of 16th and 17th century art?  How often had these gold-leafed archways accompanied by gold-leafed figures been simply passed by?  Really seeing them, not just as a part of the museum, but as a point-of-interest in the development of Vienna’s favorite son affords some kind of fascination, like sharing a secret with an old friend.

The season of Klimt is soon to end in Vienna, but here it’s always the season to wear a Klimt-patterned scarf or handbag.  I suppose that could be just as easily passed by, though.

Sorry, no pictures in this post.  Will make up for it next time!

Monday, October 29, 2012

Snowing in Vienna

Waking up and looking out to see the old red rooftops covered in snow gave me an intense rush of nostalgia.  Granted, it’s October and the snow softly fell overnight much sooner than expected, but I was glad to see it had come.  I felt like I had suddenly looked out into the quiet world of a Thomas Kinkade painting, rooftops dusted with white powder, the warm ground still wet, and hunched over people bustling down the street under out-of-season umbrellas.  All I needed was a horse-drawn carriage, and the scene would be set (to be honest, if I had waited long enough, I probably would have seen one; Vienna has its own industry built around carriage rides).

 A very light dusting of snow on the Museumsquartier.

It’s funny, though the Halloween season which is so popular in America is currently upon us, you only see traces of it here in Vienna.  They don’t really do Halloween like we do – no carved pumpkins, no candy from strangers, and only a slight trace of costume on the weekends.  The season is more of a fall festival than anything.  Pumpkin is ripe in the markets, as is squash and roasted chestnuts (which are delicious), the leaves fall much longer than they do in Minnesota.  The common drink is Sturm, or pre-wine made from fermenting grapes which have not quite reached the level of real-wine.  

 Roasted chestnuts.

Between now and Christmas, I find myself wondering what these people do.  At home we have Thanksgiving, which I've often explained to my students.  The conversation always goes a little like this: "Well, we get together.  And eat a lot of food.  Pumpkin pie, turkey, stuffing, corn.  And watch football."  Then I have to explain to them the tradition from which the holiday came: "Well see, it's a little bit questionable, but they say that a bunch of Indians... oh sorry, Native Americans (write that word down in your notebooks, not Indians) ... helped the Pilgrims ... um, write that one down too (followed by scribbles) survive by sharing food."  "You mean American football, right?"

Only a few weeks ago I was warm in the lazy autumn sun, sitting on the street side at my favorite cafés and enjoying a Wiener Melange or Espresso.  Jacket optional.  Now, it’s dipped below freezing and flecks of cold ice tumble into my face as I walk down the streets.  They say that the seasonal change here is much gentler, but really it just sneaks up on you.  You’ll get the tease of warm days, reminiscent of summer aside from the thick fall smell, and then all of a sudden it’s raining and cold, foggy and overcast.  

It's been looking like this for the past week - I suppose it was
inevitable that it had to snow sometime.  It just seems so soon! 

I’ve had the last week off due to Midterms (which weren’t really midterms – one German one and then the rest, for me, were just essays, due before the midterms week even started) and many of my classmates chose to travel.  I didn’t.  Again, I felt that it was more important that I stay and savor Vienna instead of tout around Europe in a clueless frenzy of ‘need-to-see-this, need-to-see-that’.  However, I did make travel plans for two weeks from now to get to Amsterdam.  I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t really looking forward to it.

It’s strange to have feelings of nostalgia in a foreign country.  The only real familiar things are the sounds and smells of fall; the look and cold of snow; and then the Facebook updates of all my friends in their sometimes-goofy, sometimes-sexy, sometimes-strange Halloween costumes.  Regardless, there’s a sense of familiarity about seasonal change that I think everyone can relate to.  And yet again, looking out my window over the line of red rooftops and paned windows, it feels familiar like a painting, something I’ve seen before.

 A street, wet with snow, near the Museum.
Forgetting that all museums (regardless of location) close on Mondays, I wandered up and down Mariahilfer Straβe to get to the Kusthistorisches Museum near Museumsquartier.  I received my museum pass from IES, and figured it was high time that I actually go to another exhibit.  When my numb-from-cold fingers touched the locked door handle, I was a little disappointed in myself for not checking before leaving.  Ah, well.  So it goes.  I ended up going to an art supply store and picking up some new sketching pencils, so not all was lost.  Just a little bit of the feeling in my nose.

Walking back, I passed a pedistal-ed statue in front of a church for whom someone had knitted a shawl and hat.  Aha, now this is winter wear anywhere. 

 Stay warm, Haydn!

Thursday, October 11, 2012

On Windows

        Something I come to value from living abroad is the sensation of riding in cars.  Here my choices are limited to public transportation: always the U-Bahn or Straβen Bahn, maybe a bus on occasion.  Gets you from point A to point B.   Crowded, stressful, easy, cheap, efficient, sight-less travel.  You spend so much time under the pavement that by the time you’re at your destination, you realize that you’re completely disoriented.  I lose my sense of direction in Vienna a lot, and not just because everything is shaped in circles rather than squares.  So I’ve come to somewhat miss the American car culture and the feeling of riding on an open road, direction to my own discretion.

 The city of Melk, on the way to Krems.

            The last two weekends I’ve embarked on school-sponsored trips to different areas of Austria.   Perhaps part of the reason I haven’t been blogging so much as late, and then the other part is the sheer heaviness of school work on my motivation.  Anyway, I found myself on a series of bus trips, each of which was more or less 2 hours one way.  First, along the Danube to Krems, and second into wine country and Graz. 

            Both were unspeakably beautiful.  Not just the cities, but the country in between.  On one hand, the blue Danube (for which many songs have been named) which stretches widely through scenic villages, still touched with the hand of old-world architecture and littered with baskets of flowers.  On the other hand, the Austrian Alps, high and heavy and in the morning, sheathed in a thick fog that ebbs between spread-out mountain farms.

 The alps, from a bus window, shortly after the fog
cleared and the morning sun could come through.

            Riding on a bus, I found myself unable to part from my prime window seat views.  In the Midwest, I’m so used to corn field after cornfield, flat land, and sometimes a forest or lake which, in the end, is more or less just as flat.  Austria is something entirely different. 

I quickly came to realize that I spend hardly enough time just staring out windows.  My iPod and Kindle were either dead or just plain comparatively un-interesting when it came to looking out.  With no music to distract me and new sights around each passing hill or valley, I spent some good time really thinking, and it was so refreshing.

 Wine country.  Honestly this is one of my favorite pictures
I've taken yet.  Side note- I've used up at least an entire
memory card at this point.

The second strange realization I came to was a recurrent thought provided a new context.  It may seem silly, but when viewing scenery in the States, I would often have the thought “I wonder what the natives thought of this.  How beautiful!  Driving past the Alps, the thought came again and I realized that here it has no context.  In a sense, there were never real natives here, unless you count the people still living in Austria as natives.  How strange. 

In an invaded and discovered-settled-then-settled-again background culture like America, removing me from my reactions to scenery by supposing the thoughts of a native is natural.  Here, the thought makes no sense.  European culture transcends nativity, people have been living here and settling here since time before the land we now call America was even known to exist.  What is one to think except for: “How beautiful!

I  find it a simple perception change, really, but one that I value.  Through my American eyes, I can see things in a different light than anyone here, but in a sense, I will always see it as a foreigner.  Even walking the streets of Vienna at night, the way that cheap street lamps light up the side streets and dead storefronts is amazing to me.  I tried explaining to some of my Austrian students this sense of awe that comes in waves.   I hope it never disappears.  And I want them to feel it someday, too.

 One of the many back alleyways in Graz.

Partially because I’m forced to and partially because it was inevitable, I speak with more and more Austrians every day.  Most of the time it’s because I’m teaching a class (which is going great; much better than my expectations could have told me) and the rest of the time it’s just because I’m getting comfortable improvising in German.  I love hearing what they have to say about Americans and Austrians, comparing notes on the two cultures and other cultures as well.  Talking about things like politics in an intensely neutral way while art discussion more often becomes heated.

Every day, in every conversation, I try to savor the concept of looking out a window.  Not just looking, but observing.  Seeing and thinking about and feeling the moments as they pass by.  Enjoying them because in a sense they all are beautiful.  It’s something I’d like to impart with everyone I meet.  Contemplate out the window.    I want to put it on an existential t-shirt.

Taken by a friend - Me at Schönbrunn Palace

The other morning I spoke with my younger brother over Facebook.  I would have never considered us close siblings, so I was a little surprised and a little not when he messaged me out of the blue.  For him, 3 am, for me 10 am.  He talked about how he’s been travelling about the Midwest with friends on the weekends, and even that has been culturally eye-opening. I can’t wait until he visits.  Because I understand.  I so understand. 

From now on I’m giving myself the ability to really let my eyes see.