Saturday, September 15, 2012

Potato Love

            More than a year ago I remember sitting in some unnamed philosophy class talking about seemingly unrelated subjects when the idea of ‘love’ came up.  “You know,” said the professor, chalk hovering barely from the board and gazing into the distance, “there’s a philosopher that equates the love that two people feel for one another with the kind of love that two potatoes randomly thrown into a sack must feel for another.”  A pause, a sigh, then a nod, and she moved onto another topic.

            I can’t say that I fully embraced the concept of ‘potato love’, if potato love were real love, we’d have to love all our other potatoes depending solely on proximity.  But there was some inviting ambiance about the phrase.  It simplified the closeness of all human interaction into to two cute words – potato love.  It was appealing and poetic.  I attempted many times since to write a song called potato love, but it never really came out.  It explained a little about love, but certainly not enough.

            Travelling, I’ve found that this little bit of missing something is actually a big bit of missing something.  In most cases, yes, the people you bond with are those that you are most proximitous with.  Spend more time together, and most likely you’re going to learn to like one another.  Consider, however, that the reason you may initially come into contact with other potatoes is because you may have thrown yourself coincidentally into the same sack.

            The last week I haven’t had any classes.  Post intensive break, they call it.  Hell yes, time to travel around the rest of Europe, said my classmates.  I’m not ready to travel, I’ll just stay here for now, thanks, says me.  A whole week to explore Vienna on my own – the idea was very appealing.  At the beginning of the week it was rough.  You can see in my last blog post that I was struggling with the idea of alienation and what good it could do me.  Safe to say that while it was useful to me, it’s impossible to live in that kind of state forever.

 Outside of the Arena.

            Monday night, 10th of September.  I forcefully pushed myself out of the house to go to a Dum Dum Girls/Crocodiles show at the Arena, a well-known concert venue in Wien.  I hopped on the U-Bahn, and walked through the front gates by myself and then stood around for awhile by myself because the show didn’t start for another two hours.  Well.  What to do now?  I wandered around a bit; I got used to the atmosphere.  Crumbling walls literally covered with layers of spray-paint graffiti, a cool crowd of people my age who also had piercings and tattoos, and a cool bar inside of which was playing another band.  That killed about 20 minutes.

            Standing outside with nothing to do, I get approached out-of-the-blue by a girl my age.  Hey, you speak English?  Yes?  Hell yes I did.  We began talking.  We were both here to see the same show, and were both studying in Vienna for the year.  She’s from Russia, I’m from America.  We didn’t seem to have anything in common in first, but as time passed and as we got some wine from the bar, we found that we have a lot more in common than usual.  Our taste in music was a given, but then we had the same taste in movies and books.  

 Crocodiles at the Arena.  New almost-favorite band.

            The rest of the week, we have honestly gone out every night together.  It’s nice to have someone else to share interests with, and since we both liked live music and the bar scene here, we began to branch out.  The feeling is satisfying.  While she is not the only person I’ve met since, she is one of the closest.

            This experience has made me want to revise my definition of potato love.  Maybe at home, the place where you’re raised, you can get thrown randomly into a sack of other potatoes and make common bonds with those potatoes.  Traveling, I realize now that we’re all making choices that lead us to bond with the kind of people we want to bond with – buying that attractive person at the bar a drink, going to see this or that show, wearing these pair of shoes, going to this university, studying in this country.  No matter what leads you to these choices, you immediately have a common interest with anyone else standing in near-enough proximity.

            It’s exciting, and it’s encouraging.  It makes it easier to approach people that I am initially not familiar with.  Many times, they are in the same boat as me.  And as far as the German language goes?  I remember being at the Chelsea to see another show and this Austrian guy comes up to me and starts talking to me.  Jesus, don’t be so afraid to make mistakes in German.  Someone will understand you.  You will LEARN.  That’s what you want, it’s to learn, isn’t it?

            Time to start learning.

Monday, September 10, 2012

My Viennese Sketchbook

             A hectic three weeks of German intensive screeched to a halt on Friday to allow room for a much-needed 10-day break.  No classes.  No obligations.  Just show up next week relatively unscathed and then your Viennese education can continue.  Many of my classmates elected to travel around Europe – some on a school-sponsored trip to neighboring countries, and some on their own ventures.  Talking about it, exotic locations like Rome, England, and Krakow flew past my ears.   

 Ahh, the view from a very large (and famous) Farris Wheel 
in the Prater of Vienna.

            Sounds fun, but after I hucked my luggage into the most remote cabinet in my small apartment, I came to the conclusion that I am not going anywhere this week.  Nope.  I’ll travel later, I just got here!  There’s so much Vienna to explore!  So many places and things to see while it’s still beautiful!  Bike rides, museums, public parks, gardens, operas, concerts, markets.  The real Vienna.  No ‘school bubble’.  No homework.  No appointments.  I’m more interested in finding a home here than getting a broad understanding of the greater European continent, anyway.  And besides, all by myself, who knows what I’ll discover?

            Yes… well.  All by myself.  Any beginnings-of-friendships are gone.  I don’t know many Austrians.  And if I get lost, well… I’m pretty damn lost.  The street names still don’t make sense.  The place is just so… foreign.

            I’ve come to equate the general experience of studying abroad with the phrase ‘purposeful alienation’.  On one hand, you’re simply a foreigner living in another country for school.  Legally, you’re granted alien status.  On another, the word ‘alienation’ goes much deeper than just what your card reads if you get arrested.  You’re isolated in many aspects.  Language and cultural barriers the most common – everything is just so blatantly auf Deutsch.  But other barriers exist as well, all of which have been mounting against me as I force myself to put on shoes during the day and just go see something.

I find myself developing a slight case of anxiety when it comes to simply finding a place to eat.  Sometimes it even appears when I consider leaving the apartment.  There’s no ‘comfort zone’ out there.  It’s so wild and unknown.  So full of people that I can’t communicate with or who won’t communicate back.  I often pace, imagine that there’s someone else with me to bolster my confidence, but it’s sometimes so difficult.  I practice German in the mornings just so I can be more comfortable at night.  And in the end, it’s all just so tiring. 

Because of my lack of companion for the time being, I find that it helps me a lot to keep my sketchbook with me when I go out.  Since I started a sketchbook, I’ve always chosen to take it with me wherever I go, but it never seemed so important.  Now it’s essential.  When I go to a restaurant or out to a bar, it fends off the obligation to start a conversation.  It lets me work through problems, sketch out memories of places I like.  Keep pamphlets, pictures, and brochures of the places that I visit.  Draw out maps.  Practice conversations.  Keep my hands busy on the U-Bahn.  Halt the strange anxiety in its place.  It makes me… less alienated.

Even in the short time I’ve been here, I’ve become so much more proud of the things I’m now keeping in my sketchbook.  I’ve always liked having one, but now it has meaning injected into every page.  Things have a purpose, whether or not they’re aesthetically pleasing.  I’m filling it faster than I think I ever have.  And I’m proud of myself for it.

This morning, I went to the Kunsthalle Museumsquartier to check out an exhibit that they are currently running on William S. Burroughs.  If you’re not familiar, he’s the writer of Naked Lunch and is well known for being at once a woman-killing psychopath and an influential American experimental artist and writer of the 50s and 60s.  The exhibit focused on his ‘cut-up’ technique – bits of things put together at random to create something meaningful for the viewer or listener.  

 The entrance to the display.  This area is lovely.  It's a ring of museums
surrounding a park, a couple coffee shops, and some interesting 
scenery.  I want to come here more often.  I found it relaxing.The big 
walkway in the middle - Vienna fashion week is next weekend.  Might
go check that out.  I picked up a brochure at least.

Browsing through his sketchbooks, paintings, and audio works, I realized that they all had something familiar to them.  The seemingly random-yet-meaningful assortment of pictures, words, and other mixed media struck my senses in a way that I was familiar with.  So familiar, in fact, that I was already holding almost an entire book full of these concepts that I had done myself.  My own sketchbook, meaningful only because of its randomness.  Ah, sehr gut

A couple of Burrows' pieces.  I like the mixing of text and image. 

I am certainly not the first person to travel to a foreign country only to be plagued by anxiety and isolation.  But I realize now that it is an opportunity to learn and grow.  Not only about myself, but about the processes of other human beings.  I understood, through looking at the works of William S. Burroughs, that learning to cope and understand in this way will be something I will carry along with me for a very long time.  Conversing with myself through my sketchbook is helping me get through the difficulties of ‘culture shock’ (I hesitate to call it this, because it’s such a vague concept).  Things will all turn out in the end.   Purposeful isolation.  I like that.

 Some of my originals.  While they're not as text-heavy as Burrows', I feel
that many elements are similar.  Some of the pages that I didn't post here
have that feeling represented more strongly, but I didn't feel comfortable
posting them here.  (If you know me and see me, ask me about them.)

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Youth Culture at War with Age

Let me try to tell you about my strange Saturday night. 

Since I arrived, I noticed that there’s something consistently off about Vienna.  The city is beautiful.  Don’t get me wrong.  The dirty streets are beautiful.  The flowering windowsill gardens next to the dusty dog-parks are beautiful.  The woman leaning out her window to feed the pigeons is beautiful.  The historic buildings and gardens – the Prater, the Stadtoper, the Belvedere – are beautiful.   The naughty graffiti that spills from the side-streets and the canals onto every slightly-shadowed wall is beautiful.  But there’s something so contradictory in it, just slightly out of place.

I’ve been trying to place my finger on it since I took my first step out of the airport.  There’s this constant mixing, it seems, between the old and the new.  Things that have existed since before America was born and things that have been built since sit side by side, in what at-first can be called harmony.  The more time I spend looking up as I wander to school every morning, the more I notice it.  These things go together because they have to, but not because they actually do.  

 An example street in Vienna.  I had a hard time choosing a picture
that exemplifies the odd-ness of the arcetecture.  It's there. Look
close enough, and it's everywhere.

The resulting mood can be occasionally disorienting.  You walk down the non-tourist streets, past the mundane locations where people actually work and live and it becomes so clear.  The history of this city is vast, and I’m not certain that it’s possible to completely reconcile it.  I mean, the country itself is almost a living museum, forced into a permanent neutral status following World War II.   Vienna spends more money on the arts than on anything else because it has to. 

This mood of cultivating culture and preserving history allows for the gaps in time between one building and the next to be erased.  In fact, many buildings were built purposely in a style other than in the time they were built.  Often times as I traverse the Ringstraβe I marvel at buildings that I can’t be certain by how they look to know when they were built.  And if they are ‘original’, I can’t be certain that they’re replicas of something destroyed during the World Wars or if it’s authentic.  

 This crane has been outside my window since I moved in.
Last night, it was pointing directly at the moon.

This mood doesn’t just seem to exist in the architecture.  It is within the people themselves.  This is how I come to explain the strange events of Saturday evening.

Lauren and I had heard word that there was “something going on at the Rathaus”.  Nobody knew what that something was, but it was something, and having not gone out on Friday night, I felt it was time to catch up a bit.  We travel by foot into the center of the city and get dinner at an Italian restaurant.  Nothing too strange there.  We followed dinner up with gelato, and started walking in the general direction of the Rathaus.

At some point we come to a street blocked off from traffic by the police.  Foot traffic is still open, so we continue across the walk and into an empty lane.  The next block is stopped entirely.  We would have turned around and tried another way had we not heard the clanging of a church bell from the small church on the left side of the street.  We stop momentarily, and people begin pouring out from a service, illuminated by torches.  We stop entirely.

The bell continues chiming.  A dark-brown clang.  I look at Lauren, she looks at me.  And then looking back up at the church, whose steps are now completely filled with standing people lit-up red by firelight, some pallbearers begin to descend with a casket as a symphony by Gustav Mahler begins to play.  I look back at Lauren.  “Is this real?  Shit, is this a funeral?  Who died?  You’re seeing this too, right?”  Whisper, whisper, whisper.

The pallbearers, crossing the street, carry the casket into a fire lit public park, and stand on a small hill, while the crowd begins to surround them.  A man behind them lights a structure, which slowly spells out MAHLER in the dark sky behind them.  I begin to notice that most of the crowd is not wearing regular funeral attire, and that some are taking pictures.  A carriage drives up, and the casket is loaded in.  People holding torches follow the casket as it circles the square and then off, the horses at a slow trot.

All the letters in MAHLER except for the E remain burning after the people filter back into the church.  My best guess is that it was some reenactment ceremony, although Mahler died in May.  However, Lauren and I had no idea how to react.  It was the strangest thing I’ve seen yet in this city, and that’s saying quite a lot.  Either way, it was a planned event, and we walked on.  

 This is the Rathhaus that night.  Most nights there is a
summer film festival going on this screen, with chairs
laid out and dinner around so that you can have an 
evening.  For this night, it was a little bit different.

Arriving at the Rathaus (I should explain now that the Rathaus is the city hall, and is certainly one of those ‘built in the style of…’ buildings) was a completely different experience.  It’s the end of the Austrian summer break, and there was house music pumping from speakers behind a DJ booth.  Shenanigans were about to start from the intake of alcohol, and a crowd of people pulsed, hands waving in the air to the beat.

There was no average age from one person to the next.  Many were young, but a large portion was twice, if not three times my age.  The massive projection screen threw bright neon across the faces of the crowd.  Yelling resounded from all sides, barely audible above the one-two beat.  Beer cans were littered across the ground.  A drunken Austrian offered Lauren and me cocaine and we quickly left. 

As we strolled away, the sound of the heavy bass bounced between the old buildings, sounding on and off through the alleyways like a deep church bell.