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.